How the war against child obesity is going to backfire.
A few weeks back, author Harriet Brown wrote a fantastic piece for The Huffington Post on the unintended negative effects of the US’s enthusiastic “war” on childhood obesity. In case you, like myself, live in a cave and don’t already know these things, this battle has as its general the charming and rather fit first lady Michelle Obama. The goal is simple: to make the US a healthier, happier country by encouraging children to eat well and get plenty of exercise.
And who could argue with that? We all want our kids to be healthy, right? And who could do anything but swoon at the words of Ms Obama, she of buff upper arm and organic kitchen garden? A nation of healthy, active children is surely a good thing.
The plague of childhood obesity is, apparently, an insidious enemy sweeping the land, worse than smoking and fossil fuels and Styrofoam and the Taliban combined. It’s enough to make you hover over your child, measuring her or his serving sizes and having her of his BMI charted fortnightly, clutching your carrot peeler in white-knuckled terror that your progeny might, despite your best efforts, end up being The Fat Kid.
Well, you know what? She or he might. And you know what else? Big friggin’ deal.
There are a whole lot of flaws in the discourse around childhood obesity. First of all, it’s not a plague. Are there more overweight children now than there have been in the past? Depends on which study you read. At my child’s school, which is an urban K-to-6 representing a fairly broad socioeconomic and cultural sample, there are a handful of larger kids, a handful of rather slight kids, and the rest are in the middle. The larger of the kids climb endlessly up and down the playground equipment and tear around the soccer field along with their classmates, which leads me to believe that they’re just as fit as anyone else. They seem to have plenty of energy, which suggests that they probably eat as balanced a diet as their peers. So what’s the problem? If they’re just as healthy as the other kids, why hassle them about the size of their jeans?
Because our culture seems to swallow, without question, the notion that heavier people are, each and every one, miserably unhealthy. And that they are unhealthy because they are heavy. And that they are heavy because they spend all day on the couch, living off of high fructose corn syrup and take-out hamburgers.
Well, dear reader, it’s horsecrap.
First of all, how much weight a body wants to carry depends on that body. Someone of my height but with a more delicate frame might be at her healthiest at 120 pounds. I’d probably perish if I got that thin. And I know plenty of women who outweigh me by half and who could still kick my ass in a dance-a-thon, and look gorgeous all the while. I say that if you can do that, you’ve got an ideal body. I know plenty of people who might look like they’re at a “perfect” weight, but who would get winded doing the same uphill walk that I do every day. Size is a crappy indicator of overall health. It’s crappy to assume that if a larger-than-average person happens to be ill, that the illness is caused (or even exacerbated) by size. Your heart or knees might have to work harder to lug extra pounds around, while mine might be of tougher mettle.
It’s also crappy to assume that people who are of larger-than-average size eat crappy food all day. They probably don’t, and even if they did, it’s none of your business.
Now, take all this and apply it to children. Sweet, innocent, vulnerable school-aged children. Of course, as parents we all want our kids to eat well. But we seem much less concerned about whether they eat happily. The very idea that children my daughter’s age are being taught that their health goal should be to avoid getting fat by avoiding any food with fat in it is just appalling. Anyone who knows kids (dare I add, especially girls), knows that the result of this message is not going to be a future of glowing health, but a constant judgment of friends’ lunches and the incessant comparison of one growing body to another. Kids already spend their time comparing themselves to everyone around them (“Allison has lost more teeth than I have!” “Jessica’s hair is curlier than mine!” “You gave James more juice than you gave me!”). Do we really need to emphasize the differences in weight, too?
I do believe that certain foods are better for you than others. Garlic is good for your blood. Whole grains keep your digestive system happy. Yogurt and olive oil cure most ills. I also believe that chocolate cheesecake can help bandage, if not heal, a broken heart, and that salt meat and potatoes can bring together the generations in a harmonious state of mutual respect. Organic foods are generally better than non-organic foods, but there’s nothing wrong with a Super Mae West, either. Some of the foods I love are full of “bad” things, but dammit, they are oh, so very good.
Despite our culture’s insistence that everyone is a complete idiot, most people, even children, know how to eat well. If children gravitate toward high-fat, calorie-dense foods, it’s probably because they need them. They’re growing, after all, and that takes far more energy than does the commute from one’s office to one’s house. Their brains are growing, too, and brains need things like fat and cholesterol to work properly. A person with a healthy relationship with her or his body will know when to eat more green vegetables or more protein or more fat just by listening to her or his body’s cues. But it’s practically impossible to have a healthy relationship with your body when you’ve grown up counting grams of fat and watching your every calorie and measuring yourself against an impossible goal.
We need to teach children that they need to eat good meals to make their bodies strong, so they can play soccer, or to do yoga, or to dance, or to dig up rocks, or to run up the stairs in order to slide down the banister fifteen times in a row, or whatever it is that makes them feel most alive. And that they need to eat well in order to keep their brains growing, so that they can read, and write songs, and ask questions, and come up with answers, and make up stories. They should never have to hear the word “fat.” Or “overweight” Or “obese.” They should hear “feel good,” and “have lots of energy,” and “sleep well at night.” They should hear, “so you can have lots of fun.”
One more thing: the big kids know they’re big. Because kids notice everything. What they need to know is not that they’re bigger than the other kids, but that they’re wonderful, and that they’re as valued and as beautiful and as loved as any other kid. None of us might ever say out loud that larger people are of lesser value than their more slender friends, but that’s what comes across every time we say, “I couldn’t possibly eat that; I’d be huge!” or “Too many burgers will make you fat, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” Every time we mutter something under our breath when a larger-than-average person is seen in public eating anything other than carrot sticks. Every time we claim to feel guilty about something we’ve eaten. Our kids hear it, and they remember it, and they internalize it, and they repeat it. The effects of this are far worse than the effects of all the high fructose corn syrup and fast-food burgers in the world.