Tag Archives: childhood obesity

Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences by Rebecca Jane Weinstein

Lynne Murray says:

People will do anything to protect their children. It is tragic when the actions they take damage their kids way more than the thing they are trying to protect against. This sad state of affairs is poignantly reported in at Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences, a collection of experiences and interviews by Rebecca Jane Weinstein, Esq., MSW.

The national media and its paying sponsors are heavily invested in the “curing fat kids industry.” Weinstein received invitations from major media outlets to do shows promoting her book, but only if they could pile on the bandwagon. “Talk show hosts wanted to be combative about the book because they thought it would be a good show to argue about the ‘childhood obesity crisis.’” Weinstein told me in an email. “I rejected those invitations.”

Weinstein’s refusal to participate in perpetuating the toxic myths about fat children demonstrates both integrity and a deep concern for the actual welfare of children. She will not frame these kids as hapless victims waiting to be set free (for a small fee) from an evil, communicable disease.

In the childhood obesity industry, only one narrative is acceptable: fat kids are damaged goods who need to attain a mystical state of health by becoming thin–regardless of how drastic and damaging the methods. No system has been proven to reliably make fat kids thin, at least not for long. Of course, that is a plus for the diet-addiction industry. Like the tobacco-addiction industry, they are manufacturing permanent customers.

In one essay in Fat Kids, “Collateral Damage in the ‘War on Obesity,’” Peggy Elam, Ph.D., describes how we got to this state of affairs and why the “problem” of fat kids qualifies as a moral panic:

Fat is a condition of the body, not a behavior. It is impossible to separate people from their bodies. Thus the “war on obesity” is actually a war on fat people. This “war” is hurting many people, but perhaps none so much as fat kids.

The attempt to eradicate fat bodies from society is both born out of and increases moral panic. Moral panics occur when certain groups are considered a threat to society and demonized. “What about the children?” and “Save the children!” are frequent rallying cries.

“Childhood obesity prevention” tactics have ranged from improving school meals to removing certain foods and drinks from vending machines to weighing and measuring kids and sending “BMI report cards” (also known as “fat letters”) to the parents of children deemed “overweight” or “obese.” While some such actions are reasonable—who wouldn’t want good meals served to schoolchildren?—others are patronizing, such as the assumption hat parents must not have noticed their kids are fat. The overarching problem with actions taken in the name of “childhood obesity prevention” and “treatment” is that they locate the problem in fat children’s bodies, and thus identify the problem is fat children themselves rather than focusing on behaviors, environments, or situations that are problematic for all children.

Sarah Yahm’s investigative article, “Who’s the Fat Cow Now? Ethnographic Insights on the Academy of the Sierras” begins the collection.  Yahm looks into the ways that a boarding school for “obese and overweight teens” teaches eating disorders to its students.

They start with death threats.

I ask the kids … why do it? They give me a couple of reasons: “So I don’t die when I’m twenty.” “To get healthier.” “It’s important to my mom, to be healthy.” Throughout it all looms the unquestioned threat of imminent death—the kids talk as if Wellspring is single-handedly snatching them from its jaws.

But Yahm finds an even more powerful yearning:

[W]hen they’re pressed they reveal an aching desire that has nothing to do with health and everything to do with being normal: ...

“I don’t know if people are gonna, like, change the way they act towards me but I’m looking forward to coming home, and this one boy called me a fat cow and I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Who’s the fat cow now?’ because he’s like heavy and he got really heavy over the summer, and he was so mean to me, so I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Hi.’”

One kid even tells me that “fatties” should be picked on more, that society is too accepting of fat kids, that maybe taunting helps kids decide that “Oh, well maybe I don’t want to be a fatty anymore.”

The overarching lesson they’re learning is quite clear—deviance should be punished, and the only way to be happy is to stop being deviant. Losing weight is about being cool, about having friends, about winning their parents’ approval, about not being picked on.

Aggressive children also learn with dazzling speed that bullying fat kids is okay, because the adults around them are painting a targets on them. In “Fat Immunity,” Addison remembers how the 1966 “President’s Physical Fitness Test” public weigh-in changed her life from that moment on:

Addison was the heaviest person in the school. At eight or nine years old, she was 95 pounds. She knew it, and all the other kids knew it, because the weighing took place in front of everyone. Not even a shame curtain separated her from her gawking peers. And needless to say, the heaviest kid in the school, a fat girl, heard no end. She was made fun of, of course. She was terribly embarrassed, of course. She felt very fat for the first time in her life, and painfully conscious of her body, of course. And of course, that was just the beginning.

Prior to that incident, the children hadn’t fully comprehended the power of teasing; it was as if by realizing Addison was fat and telling her so struck a chord, they had a glorious awakening. They learned the intense authority of being cruel.

The bullying is only getting worse, and schools have a notoriously poor record of protecting fat children. Ben’s story, in “Between a Rock and a Defensive Tackle,” describes the difficulty of fighting bullies when schools embrace fat hatred to blame the victim:

Whatever other hierarchy existed in elementary school, the fat kids had a spot to hold up: the bottom.

Ben frequently came home crying; even with the frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails of which he was made, little boys have a breaking point. Still, he tried to fight back. It was school policy to report bullying to the teacher, and Ben did. He did so often—so often, in fact, that during his fourth-grade parent-teacher conference his mother was informed Ben was an unrepentant tattletale. So much for zero-tolerance on the bullying front.

The experiences of fat children tell in the book are harrowing, but the resourcefulness of many children moved me deeply.

One child’s noble actions particularly stuck in my mind. “If I Were a Hat I Would Be a Sombrero” is told from the point of view of Elaine, a stepmother who seems on the face of it to be dealing with her husband’s very fat preteen son, Paul, and his younger siblings, all of who are horribly neglected. The children always return starved, lice-ridden, their clothing in tatters from court-ordered visits to their birth mother. When Elaine and her husband finally manage to obtain full custody, they find that Paul has been literally using his fat body as a shield to shelter his younger sisters and brothers from violent attacks by their birth mother. Paul’s heroic actions cost him a terrible price. Yet all the adults could see in him was a weight problem.

My own reaction to many of the experience recounted in Fat Kids reminded me of the deep feelings  Sondra Solovay’s Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight Based Discrimination stirred up in me when I read it.

I experience an almost volcanic rage when I read about the unfairness of victimizing fat kids and their parents. I had to ration my reading carefully, rest up, then at go at it again. But these stories need to be heard and these experiences need to be valued.

Many of these stories end with a hard-won prize of self-esteem that survivors of persecution have managed to build for themselves at no small cost. However, a notable antidote to the earnest sadness of many of the experiences in Fat Kids is a delightful interview with author and humorist, Daniel Pinkwater. “Digging Your Grave with Your Fork, and Other Things to Do for at Least Seven Decades, An Interview with Daniel Pinkwater” is one of the last pieces in the book. Think of it as dessert. His strong, self-reliant, incorrigibly funny attitude elevated my spirit.

Describing his childhood in Chicago in the 1940’s, Pinkwater says:

Q: How did you feel about being fat?

Fat was handy on the playground when it came to throwing a punch. I could put a little more behind a punch than a thinner kid, and so those few conflicts that arose—and I’d like to state for the record that I never started one of them—I could finish them pretty good. And also you could sit upon or fall upon someone. So you could use weight in fighting effectively. So it was a plus, and also it meant that some people might gravitate to one such as me for protection, because nobody would start with me, because I could put them away.

His view on doctors is similarly refreshing:

I don’t know if you have been to doctors a lot in your life, but there tend to be catchphrases that go around. If you’re seeing several doctors in a short period, you’ll discover them all saying the same formulaic things. And in this case, every doctor I was taken to told me, “You’ll be dead by the time you’re forty.” This upset my mother more than it upset me because that seemed like a ripe old age. It stayed with me, though, and I was very surprised at the age of forty when I didn’t die.

And then I realized that this was what your Scientologists call an engram, that had been lurking in there the whole time—it was errant nonsense. How could they predict such a thing? But I’d never bothered to refute it, I’d never bothered to dismiss it. And so it was just there as a given because I hadn’t questioned it. Forty-one, forty-two, I still wasn’t dead, seventy-one I’m still not dead, and as soon as I realized for sure that this was malarkey, which I would have realized immediately if I’d thought about it even, I felt very liberated.

Somehow or other, just a genetic fluke, a bright happy child. I drew the personality I got. I was lucky. I wasn’t insensitive. I was too amused and interested to buy any of this negative stuff. It didn’t stick, it wasn’t interesting to me. There was a period where I really wanted to become kind of a dramatic, tragic youth, but I couldn’t bring it off. Too many things made me laugh. Just luck.

Thanks, Daniel Pinkwater, I needed that.

How Parents and Children Can Move Out of the CrossHairs of the Weight Cycling Industry

Lynne Murray says

I always ask “who benefits” from any given “social problem.”

The $60 billion diet industry or, as Dr. Deb Burgard has called it, “The Weight Cycling Industry” is in the business of cashing in on a problem of its own creation. Any truly efficient method of changing body size would put them out of business, but since none exists, they can keep making money as long as they can keep the hysteria flowing.

I did not use the word “fat” in the title of this post because fear of becoming fat opens up profits from populations that do not qualify as fat by any objective measurement. The latest group under attack is fat children and their parents.

My father was a psychologist and a lifelong student of human behavior, and when I brought him my report card he often used to say: “This tells me something about you, something about your teacher, and something about myself.” I think of my father when I see the hysteria and debates about the so-called “childhood obesity epidemic.”

Attacks on fat and fat kid focus a moralizing gaze on the parents of fat children and add a new generation of weight cycling customers to the weight cycling industry’s customer base. The Georgia billboards targeting fat kids and bullying their parents as either ignorant or uncaring are a prime example. Even sadder (because of the clout of the Disney organization) is an exhibit of cartoon-animated fat hatred that opened to so much instant loud negative reaction that Disney closed the exhibit–although spokespersons say they plan to re-tool and reopen it soon.

Most parents would do anything to protect their children, but how? Particularly in the face of the prevailing assumption that parents of fat kids have “failed” by definition simply because their kids are fat. With all the insanity around food and food choices, parents and children need all the help they can get to reinforce or reclaim our bodies’ natural wisdom around food and to build or rebuild trust in our physical selves and nurturing approaches to physical, mental, and emotional health.

Here are some positive examples of role models, wisdom and proven tactics to deal with a parent’s confusion about raising a fat (and probably unhappy) child in our current hostile cultural environment.

I love Shaunta’s tips on Fierce Freethinking Fatties about how to open a healthy dialogue with children about their bodies. The entire post is well worth reading, but some of the “no-nos” and “please-dos” leaped out at me:

It goes without saying that I don’t believe there is a fat-kids problem. There might be a kids-spend-too-much-time-playing-passively problem. Or a getting-nutritious-food-into-kids problem. But those problems affect kids of all sizes. Fat kids aren’t a problem. …

First the no-nos:

… Do not, ever, sit your child down and start a dialogue with any variation of, “Sweetheart, we need to talk about your weight.” No matter how many times you tell your child that you’re doing this for their own good and because you love them, and indeed no matter how much you love them, this will do far more damage than good. Every. Single. Time.

Don’t equate your child’s body size with his or her value. No offering money for pounds lost. Don’t wait to buy your kid new clothes until they’ve lost some weight. And please, try not to give your hungry child a disapproving look when he or she eats. Hunger is normal. Even for fat people who, believe it or not, cannot comfortably live on their fat stores alone. Don’t praise weight loss. Don’t wring your hands over weight gain.

And the please-dos:

… If you’re concerned with the amount of exercise your child gets, go outside and play with them. I promise you that they will gain the benefits of the exercise whether or not you point out to them that it might shrink their bodies.

… Fill your kitchen with a wide variety of foods. If you don’t think your kids should eat Twinkies or Happy Meals, the simple answer is to just not buy them. Like with exercise, whatever benefit you believe your kid will get from not eating these foods doesn’t hinge on you making sure they know that his or her fat ass is something disgusting that must be reduced at all costs.

… Take some time to figure out what’s awesome about your own body. Here’s a hint: Everything about it is awesome. Once you’ve got your own self-acceptance bolstered, share that with your kidlets. It’s one of the best gifts you can offer them. Let them see you enjoying exercise and eating a wide variety of foods. Your child’s body is a miracle. It is. I promise. Not it will be. Or it could be, if only they’d stop eating so much. It is. Help them see that by treating your own body like the miracle it is. That means no more hating on your thighs or belly or the size of your hips. No more refusing to wear a bathing suit or wearing a cardigan when it’s 90 degrees outside to hide your arms. Learning how to love your body is a gift to your children, who, I promise, are soaking up everything you say and do like the little sponges they are.

Ellen Satter has an abundance of great links and PDFs in English and Spanish on exactly the subjects that parents stress over. I love her Food Pyramid illustrating a “Hierarchy of Food” based on the realities of human existence and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs rather than the Department of Agriculture’s fantasy pyramid. Satter sensibly puts “Enough Food” as the base:

pyramid with

Getting “enough food”—the most basic creature need—is on the foundation of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs, followed closely by the need for what is perceived as acceptable food. When today’s need is dependably satisfied, the individual can work toward providing for tomorrow and, having done that, can function at a high enough level to consider aesthetics. Experimenting with novel food builds on trustworthy access to personally rewarding food.

The abundant links on Satter’s reference page include:

Eve Reed: Turn feeding your children into a pleasant experience rather than a stressful one.

The Feeding Doctor –Dr. Katja Rowell: Taking anxiety and conflict off the menu.

Feed Me!: One woman’s opinions on food, eating, body image, and weight.

Jennifer Harris, LRD: Calming the storm — Feeding Dynamics for yourself and those you care for during eating disorder recovery.

Kathleen Cuneo: “Building healthy families one meal at a time.”

Maya Snijders-Naumann: Discover that eating and living in a health-promoting way can be a joy instead of a burden.

Peggy Crum: “Sustenance for your well-being.”

Landmark fat activist Linda Bacon, author of Health At Every Size, The Surprising Truth About Your Weight offers some wonderful PDFs on her site. I can testify that I have personally printed and brought along some of her handouts to a doctor’s appointment and it went MUCH more smoothly than it ever had before!

One of Bacon’s PDFs aimed at school administrators and teachers looks useful to parents as well:

It’s tough enough for kids to enjoy their bodies. Few are at peace in their bodies, whether they’re fat or fear becoming fat. Every time we make fat the problem, these are side effects, however unintended they may be.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) also offers an online kit aimed at teachers but useful for parents Everybody in Schools Curriculum Unit Resource Resource Kit, a collaborative project between Chancellor State College and the University of the Sunshine Coast. The materials focus on topics such as: “What does it mean to be me? – Self esteem and resilience,“ active living “What movin’ makes me feel good?” making friends with food, “Healthy and pleasurable eating” and body diversity, “How can we appreciate EVERYBODY?”