Painting a Target on Fat Kids

Lynne Murray says:

Thanks to Georgia Children’s Health Alliance’s portrayal of fat children (and their parents) as criminals, it is more dangerous to be a fat kid in Georgia this month than it was last month.

photographs of four fat children with warnings of their early death or disease

In a March 12, 2011 press release, “Georgia Fat Kids Portrayed as Criminals,” the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA)

“…demands that the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance immediately remove their billboards targeting fat children. Billboards depicting fat kids are extraordinarily harmful to the very kids they are supposedly trying to help.”

Childhood obesity has been getting a lot of media attention recently. Ironically “health” oriented initiatives that target fat children co-exist with the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), an anti-bullying measure, which does not include any mention of physical attributes (such as fat, thin, tall, or short) among the characteristics of children it would protect from bullying.

In a March 16th press release , “New “Anti-Bullying Act” Missing a Few Teeth,” NAAFA Press Release, March 16, 2011 NAAFA urges that weight and height be added to the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and describes some of the reasons that this is essential.

Multiple studies indicate that fat children are the group being most bullied. NAAFA believes leaving any group without protection will remove protection for all and ultimately lead to the failure of the SSIA as a whole. The bullying must end!

Some Bullying Facts:

• Children who are obese are more likely to be bullied, regardless of a number of potential socio-demographic, social, and academic confounders. No protective factors were identified. Effective interventions to reduce bullying of obese children need to be identified. [Lumeng, et al, 2010]

• Bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University (Yale University, Office of Public Affairs, “Bullying-Suicide Link Explored in New Study by Researchers at Yale”

• Teasing about body weight is consistently associated with low body satisfaction, low self-esteem, high depressive symptoms, and thinking about and attempting suicide. [Eisenberg, et al, 2003]

A recent YouTube video recorded by some of the schoolyard bullies who had been tormenting 16-year old Casey Heynes about his weight for years shows what happened when Heynes finally snapped and returned the violence. [Trigger Warning: Violence. I found the violence on the few seconds of the clip disturbing, I can only imagine what it would be like to live through it every day for years at school]This video can be viewed (along with the article) here.

In a Daily Beast article, Paul Campos nails the underlying flaws in the “war on childhood obesity” even when it is presented in a way that does not openly demonize fat children. Campos looks at Michelle Obama, who has picked “childhood obesity” as the cause she champions as First Lady, despite pressure from NAAFA and others to think about the effects of this choice.

The first lady would, no doubt, be horrified by the suggestion that her Let’s Move campaign, which is dedicated to trying to create an America without any fat kids, is itself a particularly invidious form of bullying. But practically speaking, that’s exactly what it is. The campaign is in effect arguing that the way to stop the bullying of fat kids is to get rid of fat kids….

Remarkably, debates about whether the government ought to have a role in making American children thinner almost never acknowledge that we have no idea how to do this. Consider the first lady’s major policy goals: She wants children to eat a healthy balance of nutritious food, both in their homes and at school, and she advocates various reforms that will make it easier for kids to be physically active. These are laudable goals in themselves, but there is no evidence that achieving them would result in a thinner population.

Campos’ article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, goes back to the roots of the nonexistent obesity epidemic, a definition of “obesity” created by statistical manipulation by a CDC expert committee chaired by William Dietz

…who has made a career out of fomenting fat panic. The committee decided that the cut-points for defining “overweight” and “obesity” in children would be determined by height-weight growth chart statistics drawn from the 1960s and 1970s, when children were smaller and childhood malnutrition was more common….

These definitions are completely arbitrary. The committee members chose them not on the basis of any demonstrated correlation between the statistical cut-points and increased health risk, but rather because there was no standard definition of overweight and obesity in children, and so they invented one. In other words, the “childhood obesity epidemic” was conjured up by bureaucratic fiat.

The committee did this despite Americans being healthier, by every objective measure, than they’ve ever been: Life expectancy is at an all-time high. … There’s no reason to think that today’s children won’t be healthier as adults than their parents, just as today their parents are healthier than their own parents were at the same age, continuing a pattern that has prevailed since public health records began to be kept in the 19th century. (Tellingly, 50 years ago government officials were issuing dire warnings that a post-World War II explosion of fatness among both American adults and children was going to cause a public health calamity).

In one of many eloquent blog posts, Ragen Chastain (Dancer, Choreographer, Writer, Speaker, Fat Person) addresses the inherent contradiction in fostering health by fighting obesity:

First, I continue to believe that Michelle Obama has the best of intentions with her Let’s Move program. But it’s time for some accountability: Mrs. Obama could have chosen to be FOR children’s health: FOR fun movement options that kids enjoy, FOR healthy lunches, FOR healthy behaviors.

But she didn’t. Instead, Mrs. Obama chose to be AGAINST childhood obesity.

The major problem with this is that you can’t be against childhood obesity without being against obese children….

I speak as someone who was put on my first diet by concerned parents beginning at age nine (including a prescription for amphetamines from the family doctor). I was only slowly was able to unwind the mental and physical damage decades later. Now I am angered as well as saddened to see America attack its own young based on wilful ignorance, bad science and hysterical prejudice against fat.

9 thoughts on “Painting a Target on Fat Kids

  1. So awful! And so true that targeting fat kids is bullying.

    I hate that Michelle Obama chose this cause, and I am among the people who wrote to her to ask her to redirect her energies. NAAFA wrote an excellent letter to her (reposted here) when she took up the cause. At the same time, it’s important to me to note that she’s really just a highly visible and somewhat powerful part of a giant bandwagon, and responses to her should (in my opinion) take that into account, perhaps more than some of them do.

  2. I cannot know what is in Mrs. Obama’s intent, but anyone who targets others and loftily lectures them on their personal habits, without a clue to their circumstances is a bully who implies that they are less somehow than she. To impose their standards upon children is a bullying. Children do not feed themselves. Their caretakers have that responsibility. Children are at the bottom of the economic ladder, and because of their economic, social, and psychological dependence on others are unable to stand up to her hectoring, holier than thou, and hypocritical imposition of the social norms of her social class which has nothing to do with 95 per cent of the population. If she had a shred of understanding of the stresses in the general population she might have some understanding, but to me at least she does not have a clue nor does she want to acquire one.

  3. Michelle Obama wasn’t always in the top social class, I think she’s well aware of the extent to which poverty and obesity are tied together.

    I’m personally all for body-positive discourse, and I firmly believe that attacking kids for being fat will only increase their distress… and their weight.

    But people need to be re-educated about nutrition, there’s no question about that. In the country of 3000kcal burgers and 700kcal coffees, common sense habits have been lost from a generation to another, and people do not know how to eat anymore. I’m happy to see that debate played out on the national level.

  4. As a (slightly) fat kid of skinny parents and now a very fat adult, this always disturbs me. I mean, it wasn’t fun being a chubby kid in the 80s, but no-one was trying to eliminate me or call me a threat to the economy or to public health. And even if they had been, what was I supposed to do about it? I ate an extraordinarily healthy diet and had a great deal of exercise, both deliberate and incidental.

    And where on earth does the “fat kids dying young” statistic come from? I’ve seen it quite a few times recently, but no research whatsoever that links childhood body weight to adult lifespan (depression, bullying and poverty, yes!)

  5. Debbie, I think “giant bandwagon” captures the essence of this campaign, my cynical side whispers that Michelle Obama’s advisors pushed this notion because it has the drama of a “war” rather than a simple “do good” campaign and it’s aimed at something Americans are already conditioned to fear–The Creeping Tide of Insidious Obesity.

    Escoffier, I totally agree with you about the insensitivity of the approach. From what little I can diagnose based on what I can stand to read of her speeches on this, I believe it’s a case of picking an issue she (and her staff on this campaign) think they understand, doing no research, taking popular misconceptions and running with them. Sigh!

    JanisBing, you have a good point about the social class aspect. I think it might even be argued that this is more about fear of fat than it ever was about healthy eating or exercise. Fat kids who do eat healthy and exercise are assumed not to exist. It’s almost as if someone had given a national campaign to that awful lady in the supermarket who tells her kid, “If you eat those cookies you’ll get as fat as that lady over there.” [i.e., a fate worse than death.]

    lilacisigil, in my humble opinion (and so far as the research I’ve seen so far), the “fat kids dying young” is based on no discernable data or scientific studies and is more about medical hexing, a “patient control” strategy doctors use all the time.

  6. This is obviously first and foremost an issue for fat children. It is also an issue for all children. Speaking as the mother of two daughters and someone who has taught dance to teenagers, the bullying, self hatred, and persecution about perceived “fat” extends to all children.

  7. A follow up to this and the post on Bullying, Darlene Howell just posed on Facebook a new child advocacy resource–link below:
    “NAAFA is excited and proud to introduce the NAAFA Child Advocacy Toolkit(sm) which shifts the focus from the war on childhood obesity to a health-centered focus embracing children of all sizes. Even more importantly, it demonstrates how to design programs and approaches that will improve the total health of all our children.”

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