Home Social Construct The “Let’s Move” Campaign: Is Childhood Obesity Talk Going Too Far?

The “Let’s Move” Campaign: Is Childhood Obesity Talk Going Too Far?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Childhood obesity is one of those things that I consider a touchy subject. Don’t get me wrong – I believe we have to tackle childhood obesity with a little sizzle leg and runnin’ man, too – but talking about childhood obesity has to be done in a very particular fashion, because we live in a climate that is, right now, very sensitive to bullying. We don’t want to make it worse.

Kids are cruel. I think a lot of us can admit to that. In a lot of cases, many of us have seen bullying or teasing first hand. That being said, how much can advertisements like this:

…contribute to that? Meet Georgia’s new anti-childhood obesity campaign.

Many aspects of “Let’s Move” won near-universal praise. But activists in the fat-acceptance movement and experts who espouse a “health at every size” approach were upset that the campaign encouraged the monitoring of children’s body mass index, or BMI, and thus might contribute to stigmatization of heavier kids.

“The idea of a BMI report card is horrible,” said Paul Ernsberger a professor in the nutrition department at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine in Cleveland.

“To declare we’re going to eliminate childhood obesity – that’s actually a very stigmatizing thing to say,” Ernsberger said. “The overweight child hears that and thinks, `They wish I wasn’t here.'”

Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor at City College of San Francisco, is the author of “Health At Every Size” – a manifesto for a movement stressing a healthy lifestyle rather than weight control. She said the focus by “Let’s Move” on BMI was of dubious medical value and posed potential problems for kids at all weight levels.

“It’s done much more damage than good,” Bacon said. “The larger kids feel bad about themselves, and the thinner kids feel it doesn’t matter whether they exercise or eat well.”

Deb Lemire, president of the Association for Size Diversity and Health, credited Michelle Obama with good intentions and commended various nutrition-related aspects of “Let’s Move.” But she said the emphasis on weight risked worsening the problems of teasing and bullying.

“The message that gets to the kids is, `There really is something wrong with me,'” said Lemire, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. “We’re saying we love you, we want you to have wonderful lives and be successful, but right now you’re just not good enough.” [source]

Let’s be clear – the majority of the critique regarding First Lady Obama’s campaign has to do with the fact that she “tackles childhood obesity,” not the fact that she “wants to encourage healthier lifestyles for children.” It’s literally a game of semantics, and the person you’re talking to will determine how the picture is painted for you. It’s all about marketing – the perception that the language choice leaves in your mind. The phrase “healthier lifestyles for children” gives you the image of kids playing in a school playground at recess. The phrase “tackling childhood obesity” puts a very specific picture in one’s mind of the fact that there is “a problem” that needs “tackling” and what “the problem” looks like: fat kids. And really, do you ever want to contribute to a climate that encourages looking at or treating any child as if they’re a problem?

There’s also the issue of how we tackle the problem, if we are among those who see a problem. I recently saw a special on The Today Show where a woman was proposing giving different meals to the “overweight” kid in the family, and giving the “skinny” kid the “treat-esque” meal. I was literally – literally disgusted. I’m almost certain that there are people who think this is a good idea, but here’s the reality of it all – both kids should be eating the same meal. Why? Because a healthy meal will help everyone’s weight stabilize – if someone needs to gain, if someone needs to lose, it will stabilize it. If one child shouldn’t be drinking sugary pink milk, then no child should be drinking it.

This is mildly indicative of the “languaging problem” that Let’s Move is accused of: instead of encouraging healthy living and more nutritive environments for all children, one could infer that the only ones who need to be taught healthier habits are the overweight children… because they wear their “problem” visibly. So let’s suppose that you have a kid who’s easily 20lbs overweight, who has a 1yr older sister who is maybe 10lbs underweight. At the dinner table, the two have visibly different meals. If you don’t think, the next time those two get into a sibling battle, that the “that’s why you have to eat the fat kid meals!” joke won’t come up – because, remember, kids are cruel – you’re fooling yourself.

And suppose that the mentality of “fat kid meals” is a pervasive one. Suppose a state like Georgia – a state that, apparently, thinks that shooting video of overweight children and putting them on billboards makes sense – decides to start offering up “fat kid meals” at lunch. The line between “preventing overweight children from becoming more overweight” and “punishing the fat kids for being fat” looks a little thin – hell, it’s also not too far from “rewarding the thin kids for not being fat.”

Children need to eat. Children need to burn energy. Both of these elements, together, foster growth. They’re important. However, there’s a certain point in a human’s life where the growth process slows down considerably, and eating habits need to be a little less “habit” and a little more “mindful.” Thin children who never learn how to eat healthily – children who are allowed to eat junk their entire lives simply because they never became overweight – become overweight adults with horrible ingrained habits. We cannot ignore that. Talking to kids in terms of what’s healthy or not – regardless of whether or not they like the foods, and regardless of whether or not they ever give up the unhealthy foods – still gives them a clear delineation between what “healthy” is and is not. It gives them their own barometer for when they go off to college and are unleashed on the hell that is… the college food court.

Having said all that, you’d think I’m anti-“childhood obesity movements.” I’m not… at least, not just yet. The reality is that adults do need to talk about these things. We do need to be able to get past that frantic feeling of “oh, I need to tend to you because you’re getting too big” and realize that it’s necessary for both kids to grow up and regulate their health properly. The reality of this is, even if this was shrouded in secrecy and only discussed with other adults…. we still have to trust those adults to get beyond their own biases and attitudes about being overweight to treat those kids like, well, kids. We still have to trust them to remember that bullying and joking on kids about something they cannot change overnight is wrong, and to not tacitly condone it. Can we always do that?

It’s hard to impart that feeling of sensitivity to adults who know that we do need to make sure that all of our children are healthy, because we’re so used to simply targeting people who “look like they need help” (read: fat people.) I can see both sides of the issue – although I took considerably more time explaining the argument against it, I’m still not completely sold – and think both sides are valid, but I have to wonder: is there a way to incorporate some size-sensitivity into a message that helps everyone learn healthier habits and, inadvertently, a little weight management? Or do you think this is all blown out of proportion?

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Katy May 3, 2011 - 10:08 AM

I’m so glad you blogged about this! I saw this on the Huffington Post and had some pretty quick reactions. Now that I’ve had some time to simmer, I’m not sure how I feel. I feel terrible for the shame that comes from this campaign…but it’s certainly effective.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 3, 2011 - 10:20 AM

Exactly – it’s not an issue of whether or not “shame” is okay, it’s whether or not the cons truly outweigh the pros, here… and even if they don’t, is it still possible to incorporate sensitivity into the message?

V. May 3, 2011 - 10:25 AM

When I was a child, my mother actually tried several times to feed me a “diet meal” while my very thin brother was allowed to eat whatever treats he liked. This approach did not last for long, because as a child in this situation, growing up in a family where food and love were often synonymous, the consequences were disastrous. I perceived it as, “You’re overweight so we are going to love you less than your brother and deprive you of things that are pleasant while continuing to give them to your brother.”

Of course, I rebelled. I was simply very hurt and confused that my mother could do me like that! Really? You’re gonna love me less because I’m heavier than my brother? (Remember, this was a child’s mind working.)

On the other hand, if she had approached both of us with an eating style that involved less junk food for both of us, and other healthy and delicious alternatives instead, I think I would have been able to understand that and it might have helped me a lot as my eating habits were being formed.

I come from a family of disordered eaters, but I was the only one whose eating habits were ever scrutinized because I am the only one to have struggled with being overweight. So I really agree with your critique of programs that simply target “obesity” and “the fat kid” without looking at the full picture of what it is to be a healthy child. Being singled out for (seemingly) punitive meals would not have helped me and honestly, probably would have given me even more of a disordered attitude toward food than the one I already had and am still dealing with.

Curlstar May 3, 2011 - 11:18 AM

Sensitivity should have been brought into the message. As you said, the skinny kids today that eat horribly can grow up to be the overweight adults. The same adults who will continue to eat horribly because they did not learn the proper choices in food as children, and the cycle will continue with their children.

Eva May 3, 2011 - 12:22 PM

When I was a kid, everybody had to do the “Presidents Council of Physical Fitness.” Why don’t children do that now? All children? If you can’t run, walk, or do something else? There are so many issues. Too many children sit in front of the TV or computer all the time, too many parents don’t even know how to cook. How can anybody tackle obesity if the parents don’t even know how to cook?

Erika Nicole Kendall May 3, 2011 - 12:47 PM

They still did the Presidential Fitness Test when I was in high school. I think it dates all the way back to President Johnson, actually. Should still be going strong.

Lots of schools have ditched PE/recess and other electives – art and music come to mind – in response to struggling to teach to the yearly standardized tests that we have.

Eva May 3, 2011 - 1:27 PM

Before Johnson, it was JFK who started it.

Getting rid of PE was really not a good thing.

I really think though that no matter what you do, someone is going to feel shamed/left out/hurt. Even if everybody in the family begins to eat healthy, the heavier child will still feel like he’s the reason for all this change. You can try, but you really can’t stop someone from feeling hurt. Sometimes it’s worse to do nothing than worry about hurting someone’s feelings.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 3, 2011 - 2:06 PM

We’re both wrong – it was Eisenhower. ROFL

CurlieGirlie May 3, 2011 - 2:12 PM

I don’t know…I still kind of have problems with the presidential fitness challenge. When I was a kid, I wasn’t very competetive when it came to sports, mostly because I knew that I had pretty bad hand-eye coordination and I was a slow runner. I was okay with that, and I was still active because I was enrolled in dance. However, the presidential fitness challenge (or at least the version of it that we did at my school) focused more on speed than endurance. You had to run certain distances within certain amounts of time, otherwise you were considered to be completely out of shape. Even if you did everything within the time restrictions, if you were significantly slower than the other kids, you got teased later on. I have never been, and will never be a good sprinter. The presidential fitness challenge had me convinced that I was a poor runner. It wasn’t until I was in high school and started running cross country that I realized that while I may have been a very poor sprinter, I was actually pretty good with long distances. Soon I was actually enjoying ten mile runs. And you know what? After I graduated from high school, I stopped timing my runs. I love the feeling of running long and far without worrying about whether or not my pace is fast enough. I think that running is something that I could have fallen in love with much earlier in life had I not had the pressure of “being fast” in elementary school.

I think competition and timed challenges are all good for kids that want them (i.e., the kids that choose to play organized sports), but for those that want to be active without the added pressure of measuring up to someone else’s standards, I think that challenges like running a mile should be done on their own pace, with or without a running buddy. As adults, we get these options. Why don’t kids? No wonder so many kids think exercise sucks.

Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD May 3, 2011 - 12:43 PM

Bravo. I’m a dietitian and work extensively with children and parents. The idea that only the patient (fat person) has to eat differently is a core problem with conventional approaches to weight loss. I have news for everyone. Most of my overweight clients were thin as kids. As kids they learned that they could get away with eating whatever they wanted. Once they don’t get away with it anymore, they are furious. They just want their old metabolism back.

Today we understand that many factors influence metabolism. Even thin kids may have metabolic imprinting that destines them for struggles with weight as adults.

I can’t applaud your truth enough. We live with an incredibly abundant and adulterated food supply. All children and everyone in the family needs to eat a healthy and balanced diet. It is absolutely misguided to use weight, body size, or BMI as the litmus test for what kids get to eat.

Eva May 3, 2011 - 1:29 PM

I do think the BMI is a load of crap. I think someone once said that if you really took the BMI as gospel, a lot of professional athletes would be considered overweight.

Alysa May 3, 2011 - 12:58 PM

Such a well thought-out post. This issue is such a touchy one because everyone wants to help, but in the process can alienate and shame the very kids they are trying to assist. I completely agree that different meals should not be cooked for each child. I tell the same thing to adult clients that are trying to lose weight. Let’s make over the eating habits as a family, so everyone benefits!

Daphne May 3, 2011 - 1:21 PM

I was an overweight child, but my parents (mom, specifically, since she prepared the meals) didn’t serve me different food. My mom just used to tell me to “watch it,” or I was going to get bigger. I was also the only fat one of the siblings, so of course, I was the only one who received that message. Mind you, my family didn’t have the healthiest diet – we ate what was provided. Southern soul food was the cornerstone of our meals.

The thing with most of the anti-obesity principles, though, is….it’s not really about health. It’s about the perception of it. So as long as you don’t “look” unhealthy, which generally means slim(mer) but not too thin, the general public doesn’t care what you eat. So I’m not surprised at the marketing for the Georgia campaign. We can’t even get adults to agree on this, so it makes sense that the same warped thinking is filtering down to children.

Even among the healthy, unprocessed food advocates, I sometimes perceive the underlying message to be about using food as a means to an end (losing weight) rather than improvement of our physical well-being. Isn’t that why there is so much discussion on “good” vs “bad” food? If we’re being honest, the primary reason the healthy food movement has gained traction is due to the increased body mass of our citizens. If most of the country was collectively slimmer, yet still susceptible to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other medical issues, would there still be the same conversation?

So I think the first thing to mentally unpack: targeting people who “look like” they are unhealthy due to body size. Until we can get beyond healthy being the euphemism for thin, I doubt any campaign can avoid punitiveness to children, teenagers, and adults who fall on the wrong side of the body size spectrum. I’m not discounting that weight/body size can be a symptom of unhealthy behaviors. I just don’t think it’s the only symptom. At some point, as you get older, (reasonable) weight gain might be unavoidable, not to mention a good thing (if the recent studies on older citizens and weight are accurate).

Once that mentality is unpacked, I believe the messaging to our children will automatically change. In the meantime, there has to be a deliberate effort at the family and/or community level to encourage healthy habits among all children, so they can be equipped to make better decisions as adults.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 3, 2011 - 1:58 PM

Even though you’re calling me out here a bit, as well – and I don’t mind – I kind of agree with this:

“Even among the healthy, unprocessed food advocates, I sometimes perceive the underlying message to be about using food as a means to an end (losing weight) rather than improvement of our physical well-being. Isn’t that why there is so much discussion on “good” vs “bad” food? If we’re being honest, the primary reason the healthy food movement has gained traction is due to the increased body mass of our citizens.”

I think that it’s kind of understood that “the answer to weight woes” is dieting. I think that the healthy food movement gains traction, in a sense, because of the implied elitism of getting what someone else cannot. I feel like THAT angle is more successful than any other in drawing people to the anti-processed food movement. There are a few of us on the outsides (I’m sort of referring to myself, here) who experienced other benefits and have tried to bridge the “movement” in other ways, but I don’t know that the “healthy food (anti-processed food) movement” is immediately linked to weight loss. That being said, I do think we’d still be having the same conversation, but it’d be colored differently… because the same health issues would stand, the same need to address obesity-linked illness would stand and the same urgency to stop people from indulging would exist. Just like the weight doesn’t define whether or not the problems are there, the LACK of weight won’t, either.

Good points, though.

Daphne May 3, 2011 - 11:47 PM

I actually wasn’t thinking of you when I referenced the healthy, unprocessed food advocates above. I was thinking of those who usually direct their message to the overweight/obese, primarily or solely. My perception of some messages, paraphrased:

“X% of Americans/women/black women are overweight/severely overweight/obese because they don’t eat real food. They eat too much junk. These people need to eat healthy, unprocessed food and exercise.”

Notice that only the eating habits of the overweight/obese are scrutinized, because of the “obvious” problem (just like the targeting of overweight/obese child in Georgia’s campaign). Some, perhaps many, of such advocates haven’t had major issues with their weight. So, it’s kind of like, “Y’all need to get it together.” I agree with the elitist attitude, although for a different reason – the subtext of “Well, I/my family make(s) the effort to eat X way, so there’s no reason you can’t as well. It’s because you’re not trying hard enough.”

I’ve never read anything like the above on this site. You have an empathy I don’t always perceive elsewhere, even while maintaining a sense of accountability.

Allison May 3, 2011 - 2:57 PM

What really bothered me the most is what Bobby was saying “My name is Bobby and I love donuts…and chips…I try to put them in a bag and sneak them under my bed for snacks…I hate veggies…They look and taste nasty”

FIRST OFF I think that site is extreme and BS, I was a fat child & never had food under my bed. Secondly there are thin children that say the same things he says! I think they should have did that differently
had children of DIFFERENT sizes talking about their poor eating habits
and try to get children to eat healthier in general and be more active and productive. It is unfair to act as if only fat children eat bad and skinny children eat well. I think that campaign should be revamped to be focused on children eating better not acting as if poor children in children only effects obese children.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that childhood obesity is a serious concern, especially in the U.S., however I believe that site was malicious and far too much.

Daphne May 3, 2011 - 11:50 PM

Completely agree, Allison. I never hid food under the bed or in my room, either!

Eva May 4, 2011 - 9:17 AM

I was watching the videos again and what gets me is that the focus seems to be on the children, not what is going on in their lives. For instance, there is a statement that “4 out of 5 African American women are either overweight or obese in the US.” Now some people will look at this and think, “they need to get their stuff together, that’s what’s wrong with them.” But the don’t look at the whys. Maybe it’s because many black women have low paying jobs and live in areas that are unsafe for walking. Or maybe it’s because they live in food deserts, or maybe it’s because they’re working three jobs and don’t have time to cook and are so tired that all they can do is throw something in the microwave.

Claire May 5, 2011 - 11:07 AM

Interesting! First I must say I am ALL FOR childhood obesity projects!!

I work in public health and much of my work involves chronic disease and children. Childhood obesity is a REAL problem. Long gone are the days where we can ignore children who are “pudgy” or overweight. Of course these projects are not intended to make kids “feel bad” about themselves, but rather to educate and empower children and families to adopt healthier lifestyles. Adult chronic disease such as Type II diabetes and even heart disease are becoming more prevalent in child populations. Those involved in this anti-childhood obesity movements should think about the long term effects of childhood obesity in our nation. Its not just about our feelings and self-esteem anymore, its about health!!

Well that’s my 08 cents…

Follow me @BeautyNBrains33

Lasciel May 9, 2011 - 12:01 AM

“its not just about our feelings and self-esteem anymore, its about health!!”

I don’t think the two can be so disconnected to health. Having a sense of self-esteem and feeling generally content in life IS an aspect of health. If you have poor self-esteem or emotional troubles than you’re suffering from poor health. I don’t see how making fat children loathe themselves is going to help them to lose weight-in fact, a lot points to the opposite.

It shouldn’t be about fat kids only in the first place, it should be about improving the health and wellness of all kids, and that includes how they feel about themselves.

Tremilla October 29, 2011 - 4:46 AM

Totally agree!

Preserve The Curve May 29, 2011 - 4:20 PM

I am not sure how I feel about this. I do understand how things can cause shame and emotional pain but I also know that no matter how sensitive you say things, someone will take offense to it. No matter how you label overweight, kids are still going to be cruel, self esteem will still be affected and the problem will still exist. Being realistic, tough love has proven to be more affective. Seeings that I cater to the obese population, I do see the need for tough love. I do think that eating healthy should be for all children despite the weight. Our children should only be able to indulge in the “unhealthy foods” as treats. Junk food, candy, fast food and all other things causes obesity should be eaten rarely. Kids should not feel that eating healthier food is a punishment. What ever happen to serving 3 course meals? So all and all, how ever healthier living is pushed, we should be able to accept it and teach our children how to accept who they are, as they are.

Connie July 18, 2011 - 12:17 PM

So happy that you brought up the skinny kids who were never taught to eat right. My husband and I were talking about this last night. He grew up in a rural area, his parents gardened, and he had constant access to a multitude of fresh healthy snacks and meals. I on the other hand, was a child athlete. In addition to school, I had practice for 2.5 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. When my parents prepared meals, it was normally something quick out of a box or it was something grabbed quickly on the go. We were so busy. Being that I was so active, I was able to eat just about anything without it effecting my weight. I never learned as a child how to cook, what was healthy, or the discipline it takes to make the choice between a salad and a piece of cheesecake. Infact, before competitions we were told to “carb up” and my parents would allow me to eat excessive amounts of pasta. Anyway, once the childhood athletics stopped (when I was around 16) the weight slowly started to creep up. When I went away to college and was put on an all you can eat meal plan, my weight ballooned up 30 lbs. When I got my first real job, I was able to control my weight a little better because I was away from the kitchen. I could only eat what I brought with me to work. Then I became a stay at home mom… after 3 kids, my health and weight are absurd. I have no self-control or discipline when it comes to eating. I was one of those skinny kids who was never focused on… and now I’m paying for it.

Kerry October 31, 2011 - 12:04 AM

I have a thin child and an overweight child. My husband and I are both a healthy weight. We know what healthy eating is and thankfully we have the time, energy, and skill to implement it. We focus on both our kids health. If our thin child had his way he would eat candy and bread all day long. My overweight child actually makes the better food choices. The last thing my overweight child needs is a billboard telling him that he is fat and that he needs to change, that he is a problem. He knows he is fat, everybody around him does. He needs a loving tolerant support system to help him through the inevitable bullying. He needs more encouragement but not more discriminating labels. He may struggle with weight his entire life but we are doing everything to give him the skills to make it easier. We would be cruel to neglect educating our thin child just because he does not have a weight issue now. We teach them both to eat healthy and both to stay active.

Roxie February 1, 2012 - 1:02 AM

I am not sure if they brought it back but, I remember when I was in elementary school they took away recess. I think that was there downfall. Unlike high-school and middle school where you have gym every day. We only had gym once a week and on other days would be cooped up inside. I remember hating that and noticed that me and my friends were gaining weight, not alot but enough.I think they need to bring back recess and allow the kids outside and give them jump ropes, hoola hoops, Kickballs and other things to encourage movement.

Mary Cosedine June 20, 2013 - 1:17 AM

Child Obesity is a very important topic to deal with for the sake of the child’s future, but at the same time the approach to this issue obviously can’t be the same as that taken with adults. Adults are mature, they understand cause-effect, they are in a position to accept personal responsibility.

Children are not in this position, it is not necessarily their choices that create their physique and they may not be aware of any cause – effect.

Obviously some children are “good doers” and others are “poor doers” so their metabolic rate determines their physique to a large extent.

An obese child needs to be educated about diet, weight, exercise and issues related to being overweight in such a way that doesn’t point the finger. This will provide them with a healthier perspective on their weight which will help them cope with the negative peer group impacts.

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