What ‘childhood obesity’ is really doing to kids

Cross-posted at Feministe

‘Gosh, she’s sooo heavy!’ is not really an exclamation you want to hear uttered by someone as they lift your child onto their lap. Especially if that someone is loved and respected by your child and in a position to influence her. And when you are a fat mother, and a feminist, and that person is a relative (whom you love, but don’t always understand), it makes for a pretty tense moment. Which is fucked up, I realise, because my kid is heavy, and remarking on it shouldn’t be any different to remarking on her eye colour. But it is.

My daughter, for the record, is not ‘obese’ or fat. Not that I should have to state that here, since it’s not anyone’s business nor particularly relevant. (Really, I shouldn’t have to, and I’ve written and deleted that sentence multiple times, but I do state it because I know some of you are wondering and I know that, sadly, in this ridiculous climate of obesity panic and parent-blaming, it’s just going to be that way). She is, however, tall for her age and she has a large head and solid limbs. She’s strong; she has heft.

I was like that as a kid. I thought I was hu-ugely fat by the time I was a pre-teen but photographic evidence shows me that I was not. The fat came later, long after the bullying began.

People who comment on my daughter’s solidity don’t necessarily see her as fat, with all the judgement and stigma that unfortunately implies, but we know that young children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to experiencing weight messaging as a hit to their self esteem . And I know that as a fat parent, I am doubly scrutinised. The shape and weight of my child is, for some, tied directly to the strength of both my morality and my parenting skills. It’s also true that as she grows, my child will comprehend the stigma that is attached to having a body like mine and, because stigma is awful, she may fear it falling on her. Whatever kind of body she grows into, she may suffer because of other people’s lack of sensitivity and compassion, as well as the general public’s lack of real knowledge of the relationship between fat and health. That hurts to know.

I was once told that I had an obligation to become thin (as if I could just choose to be and, voila!) because my kid will grow up looking at me and thinking that fat is a way to be. As if, somehow, she would catch my fat, no matter how our family lives and eats and moves and no matter what her genetic predispositions. (This person assumed, as many do, that thin is objectively healthier and ‘better’ than fat.) Some people think children should be kept from the terrible knowledge that contented fat people exist because that would, by some sorcery, mean that the notion of fatness would never occur to them and they would always remain thin. Some people just don’t believe fat parents can possibly provide a healthy home. Some people think parents of fat children are by definition lazy or incompetent or unloving. Some people are ignorant. Some people are arseholes.

Some of those people have been in the media this past week talking about a study which, it has been widely reported, recommends that very fat children be removed from their parents and put into foster care. One of the problems with this is that the study has been widely misrepresented: have a read of this break-down by Dr Samantha Thomas if you’re interested. I’m not in the least surprised that the media haven’t been more accurate and sensitive in their handling of this ‘news story’. That’s par for the course when it comes to ‘obesity’ and they do love to parade us fatties as cautionary tales. Unfortunately, what could have been an opportunity for some serious discussions about systemic barriers to good health and the ethical problems with performing gastric banding surgery on minors, became a great big festival of fat hate with a large helping of mother blaming. Especially poor mothers, cause they’re really easy to hate on, apparently.

Opportunities for bonus misogyny aside, childhood obesity is a juicy story, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to conveniently forget the facts. In Australia at least, rates of ‘childhood obesity’ have plateaued and we’ve known that for a few years now. On the other hand, rates of body dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviours like yo-yo dieting are increasing in young people. But it’s far easier to scapegoat parents — most often mothers who are more typically charged with cooking and shopping — than to consider some of the nuance here. There is a strong case to make for changing the story from one about ‘childhood obesity’ to one about ‘childhood poverty’ (because yeah, fat kids can be undernourished kids) but that would involve facing up to some ugly social inequality and who wants to hear about food deserts when we could see a glossy grab about how Happy Meals are killing our children, amirite?

Hyper-awareness of childhood ‘obesity’ leads to shit like the absolute violation of privacy and trust that is public weigh-ins and fat shaming in educational settings. It increases the stigmatisation and bullying of fat kids but apparently not even prominent anti-bullying advocates give a shit about that, so would should the media?. Unless the bullied fat kid ends up in a viral video, and then the mainstream media will run stories about how he responded to that bullying the wrong way.

I know some readers may see this as contradictory: one minute I’m saying that kids are everyone’s responsibility and then the next I’m saying that we shouldn’t subject them and their families to undue scrutiny! Oh my!

But actually, I ask people to care about children and young people and about mothers and parents, and that implies reserving snap judgements. I ask people to approach parents with compassion, to educate themselves enough to understand the pressures that families face, to realise that individual circumstances vary, and to recognise that systemic barriers to ‘good parenting’ and ‘lifestyle choices’ exist. This complements an acknowledgement that children have the right to live free from abuse and bullying, from undue coercion and from deprivation. And it makes it harder to keep foisting the responsibility for society-wide health concerns onto individuals.

Whatever your beliefs about fat and health (and hey, I know you’ve got ’em), you’ve got to acknowledge that stigma is harmful. There is no value from a health-promotion perspective in further stigmatising fat people, and certainly not fat children. Most people can’t self-loathe their way to permanent thinness (and certainly not to good health). Fat hate won’t amount to a positive contribution to society, no matter how many ‘reality’ TV shows imply otherwise.

My kid is three years old and she’s already learning what it means to have a heavy body in the midst of ‘obesity’ panic. You cannot tell me that’s for her own good.


Filed under Body Image/Fat Acceptance, Feminism, Motherhood and Parenting

10 responses to “What ‘childhood obesity’ is really doing to kids

  1. My 9 year old recently refused to wear a slightly baggy jumper because it makes her look “fat”. It didn’t and she isn’t. My 12 year old hit puberty early and gained a lot of weight. She is also very tall, the tallest in her class. She worries that she doesn’t look like the other girls. She refers to herself as “fat” and she doesn’t believe me when I tell her, her body will sort itself out. She overeats when she is feeling vulnerable and she often feels vulnerable after a weekend with her other parent who has, I’ve just found out, been heavily restricting the food intake of both of the children. I am struggling with trying to keep the children healthy, building their self esteem and allowing them to be children whilst being bombared by media images of “ideal” bodies, and comments and teasing from other children. I am really glad to have found this blog. It’s very helpful and well written.

  2. Bullying fat people, of any age, is Satanic and widely accepted in our culture. But I hate it the most when it’s directed at kids. My girls are “slim”, but woe betide the asshat who makes their body a big deal. And God help anyone who snarks at them should they gain “too much” weight.

  3. lilacsigil

    It wasn’t much fun being a fat kid in the 80s, but I suspect it was vastly better than being a fat kid now. At least I wasn’t part of an “epidemic” and no-one wanted to take me away from my parents because I didn’t look like they decided I should look.

  4. vidya108

    “Some people think children should be kept from the terrible knowledge that contented fat people exist because that would, by some sorcery, mean that the notion of fatness would never occur to them and they would always remain thin.”

    I love this. And it’s exactly what homophobic parents believe about children’s ‘exposure’ to gay adults, too.

  5. Heather

    My step-sister is a ‘heavy’ child. She has very tall parents. She was born a large baby. She was 95% at 6 months and the pediatrician was talking about putting her on a diet. She is teased at school about her weight and last year, her dad put her on a diet and exercise regimen.

    She’s not fat. Tall and well-built, yes, but not fat.

    And you know what? So what if she were? It still wouldn’t excuse any of this.

    The other kids used to call me ‘fat’ in school. I’ve been rail-thin for my entire life. It’s only because we’ve taught kids that ‘fat’ is the worst possible thing to be that it becomes an insult hurled at everyone.

  6. Super interesting post.

    My little girl was always at the 50th percentile for height and weight but people were always pronouncing her either “big for her age” or “small for her age.” It’s a thing people do. They autocomment on the size of a kid. Can’t imagine why.

    My brother-in-laws family had a baby 5 days after us. She was very small and is still a little waif. When I picked her up in my arms though, I just cuddled her. I didn’t remark “She’s so tiny!” even though she felt like a bird to me because I was used to holding my very medium sized daughter. When they would pick up my daughter though, they’d make groaning sounds as if they were trying to push a sedan out of the muck, and remark loudly, “She’s so huge! She’s enormous! Holy smokes she’s sooooooo heavy!”

    It drove me nuts and when I asked them to stop they looked at me like I needed therapy. Well, of course I do, but that’s beside the point.

    Anyhoo, my policy is if I feel compelled to comment on a kid to their faces but as if they aren’t there, I pronounce them “beautiful” instead of going on about their size.

  7. Olivia

    This is an excellent post. For me truly loving the body I have came after having my daughter. I am determined that if my daughter is going to have a fat mother, then she will see me as fat and happy. No self-loathing body talk, no skipping the pool because of my fat, etc. Content fat people do exist and I think seeing that is more likely to lead to healthy children of all sizes.

  8. Great post. I was at a friends place the other day and over heard her tell her 6 year old daughter “No you can’t have juice now, you had juice at breakfast, have some soft drink.” I was initially shocked, but as my partner pointed out later soft drink is cheaper than juice. the food we eat is about so much more than individual choice.

  9. Morgan

    The association between weight and health, is frustrating. As adults it is always heavier individuals who are labeled unhealthy, and there are people who are “overweight” and unhealthy but I’m sure there is a fair share of “healthy” weight individuals who are deficient in something in their diet. Adolecents going through puberty NEED extra weight on board to grow, it is disgusting that weight is discussed by peers and especially adults of influence to these children. Having extra fat on board rather than being to thin at this point in development is much healthier.

  10. Pingback: links for thought, July 2011 (1 of 2)

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