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?