Michelle Obama: No Friend to Fat Kids
Dear Mrs. Obama,
In response to your e-mail of July 18, 2010, from which I quote:
“…help us tackle an issue that is dear to my heart — childhood obesity. As some of you know one of my top priorities as First Lady is the Let’s Move! campaign, where we have made it our goal to put a stop to the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so children who are born today grow up at a healthy weight.”
Mrs. Obama, my respect for you has taken a serious hit since you initiated your campaign against childhood obesity.
It isn’t that I want to force-feed our nation’s children and turn them all into lumbering giants; rather, I thought you were smarter and had more vision than to approach the issue as clumsily and insensitively as you have.
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging children to get more physically active, as your “Let’s Move!” campaign does. There’s also nothing wrong with educating children about good nutrition.
However, your campaign is unintelligent at its core, because instead of simply encouraging all children to eat right and stay active, you have made the choice to cast obesity itself as the enemy to be destroyed.
When we frame our battle for healthier children as a battle against fatness itself, we’re merely proclaiming open season on fat people. We’re encouraging an already fat-prejudiced society to further demonize those who bear the fat – worst of all, the children who bear it.
If you promote healthful eating and physical activity, then you’re automatically promoting a lifestyle that will reduce the weight of some children.
Therefore, why bring obesity into the equation at all, Mrs. Obama?
See, what happens is, the kids whose bodies don’t shrink in response to carrot sticks and playing tag will be left feeling stigmatized. “What I am is wrong. I’m a freak. What I am is something everyone — including the First Lady — wants to wipe out. What I am is soooo incredibly wrong, that the First Lady chose to use her considerable platform to launch a nationwide campaign against what I am.”
Mrs. Obama, your campaign assumes that all fat children are fat because they don’t exercise or eat right. It’s the same assumption so many people erroneously make about fat adults.
I’ve known kids who were just plain chubby, not because they overate, not because they weren’t active. They were just chubby. Their bodies weren’t finished yet. They were children, you see. And when they got older, they slimmed down — naturally.
I’ve also known children who appeared “fat” by our societal standards, who were only reflecting their family’s genetic code to be stocky. Not necessarily obese, but short and solid. As children, perhaps they “appeared” fat. They, however, like their siblings and parents, were in perfect health.
But what happens when you bring in an entire society, conducted by a misguided First Lady, who wants to fight what these kids are?
The kid who didn’t have an eating disorder before might develop one now. Or develop another harmful way to cope with his or her anxiety. They’re guaranteed to develop poor self-esteem. Because the entire country is telling them that what they are is wrong, and must be fought.
And WOW, no worse time to fill somebody’s head with negative, unhelpful messages than childhood if you really want them to stick.
Look at it this way. Let’s say you have a choice between:
a) standing up before a room full of children and encouraging them to exercise more, or
b) standing up before a room full of children and encouraging them to exercise more, and then throwing a handful of knives into the audience.
Why would you select b), unless you wanted to hurt someone?
You can help children get healthier without doing harm.
By pinning the “fight against childhood obesity” onto messages about your “Let’s Move” campaign, you are reminding fat children that they need to be “fixed” — not the kind of positive reinforcement that generally works. (And fat children already know they’re fat. BELIEVE ME. We never let them forget it.)
As for the thin children, you’re merely reinforcing the fact that the fat kids have something “wrong” with them, which for kids often translates into the “different” child becoming a target for cruelty, ostracization, etc.
Imagine this. Somewhere, there’s an eight-year-old kid who’s under five feet tall and already 300 pounds. He takes your messages to heart, Mrs. Obama, and makes some changes, and drops 100 pounds. We can both agree that’s a lot of weight, right? But then, his weight stops moving. He’s eating moderate food portions, his diet is nutritionally balanced, he gets plenty of exercise. If he eats any less he’ll be starving. He’s doing everything right, but still, no further weight loss. His parents and teachers applaud him for his significant accomplishment, but to the rest of the world, this now-200-pound child still appears “fat”.
Meanwhile, your battle against childhood obesity continues to rage. Grown-ups at Little League murmur behind the child’s back, “What a shame, to be that big, and so young. His mother should be reported for child abuse.” The child wonders, “What more can I do to get these people off my back?” He starts thinking of ways to restart his weight loss. Never mind that he’s a growing boy and what’s left of his body fat may shift on its own as he gets older. “What more can I do? I’m still not good enough for them yet.” Maybe he stops eating altogether. Maybe he starts vomiting. Now, we’re in dangerous territory.
Maybe, just maybe, if this kid had understood that his goal was simply to change his habits — not necessarily to “not be FAT anymore” — he would’ve wound up better off in the end. His newfound healthy relationship with food would not have turned unhealthy as he tried to force further weight loss. He’d be feeling good about himself and what he’d already achieved.
Maybe he even would’ve dropped more weight. After all, the release of stress hormones can hinder weight loss. And if he’d not felt like such a failure after only 100 pounds lost, maybe he wouldn’t have felt so much stress.
We’ve got an awful lot of people out there who are emphatically “against” fatness because they feel it’s unhealthy – including you, Mrs. Obama. It stands to reason, then, that you and concerned others like you would be in favor of anything that permanently (for lack of a better word) “cures” fatness. So, if encouraging healthy habits WITHOUT harping on obesity MIGHT WORK, Mrs. Obama, why aren’t you giving it a chance? Does it sound too “easy” on the fat kids? If so, then it sounds to me like you want fat people punished, first and foremost. And what’s that about? Good will for the children’s sake, or just plain hatred?
Besides, we have a pretty ridiculous idea of what counts as “being fat” in this country. That’s why we have so many women with anorexia and bulemia. That’s why we have so many little girls who aren’t fat on diets. And that dieting is stunting their growth. It’s making them sick.
We’ve got a hell of a lot of un-fat people going on diets in this country, because they’re scared stiff to be fat. Because they know fat people get the least love, the least respect. But, irony of all ironies, that dieting is what makes a good number of people fatter in the end.
The more we stigmatize “being fat”, the more likely we are to have people who can’t co-exist healthfully with food.
Additionally, there are a lot of short-sighted, angry people in this country who are quick to blame fat people for their fatness. “Buck up and get some willpower!” they seethe. “This is a choice — stop playing the victim!” Interesting, though, that a lot of people got on board with making the tobacco industry take responsibility for pushing its cancer sticks on the populace, particularly young people. And yet not many people are willing to tell Big Food to stop loading up their edibles with combinations of fat, salt and sugar that have been proven to be as physically addictive as cocaine, and which is completely unnecessary. Few people are willing to make the parent companies of chain restaurants take responsibility for pushing huge gooey portions of food on prime time TV viewers, or for creating unnecessarily huge portions, for “supersizing” their meals or inventing “Fourth Meal” as Taco Bell has done — all in the name of SELLING MORE. It’s classic, corporate greed.
Our energy and attention would be much better spent focusing on education, and investigating the possible variety of causes of fatness – particularly those that have received the least attention in order to protect corporate profits.
But it’s so popular to shit on fat people, few people really want to make Big Food accountable. It would mean we’d have to shift our blame away from fat people, and kicking them is just too much fun to sacrifice. There are so many fat people out there (40% of the population, according to recent stats) that we’re bound to run into a few of them each day — and each encounter is a brand new chance for us to unleash our frustration, our guilt for our own gluttony, our self-hate of our own “imperfect” bodies, onto somebody else. Gee, it’s not nearly as effective a release as directing your hatred towards some faceless corporation. It’s much more satisfying to sneer at a real person, to watch a fat person’s swollen face fall as you reject them — for a job, for a date, for friendship.
Michelle Obama, you need to take “fighting obesity” out of the equation. Focusing on the positive — eating well and exercising — is enough. Children who are perhaps fat because of how they eat will learn to eat better. Period. Mission accomplished, without doing harm. But “fighting obesity” is DOING HARM.
Admittedly, it takes some extra-credit thinking to get it — a willingness to think beyond the media messages we get spoon-fed every day. (Fat always causes disease — therefore, you have carte blanche to demonize people who wear it to your heart’s content. And thanks for towing the line, because it helps sell our products. Love, the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry.)
But making children feel bad for what they are? Reinforcing for other children (and adults) that fat children are flawed creatures?
It’s short-sighted and cruel.
Think about it.
Author, “Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large”
Coming in Spring 2011 Random House