Friday, May 13, 2011

Fighting Childhood Obesity.

I am very short, though it's all proportional: my arms and legs are proportional with my trunk, my head is neither overly large nor particularly small. You get the idea. I just look like a mini-"regular" person. My husband is short. My kids are short. We're all well below the normal range, but we all look just fine.

I have very light skin. My husband tans well. Both our boys got the red-headed genes from their grandparents on both sides of the family. Like me, they burn in record time and never tan. I used to hate how pale I stayed through the summer, but I never felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.

I wear glasses. So do my kids. My husband does not. It means he's saved some money over the years on not having to buy glasses, but the fact that I've been wearing glasses since I was very young, as have my kids, has not made us feel strange or rejected from society.

What's the point of all this?

While different colours and skin tones, heights and visual acuity are all relatively acceptable (OK, so I did get called midget sometimes at school), weight variations are not. We all know there's a bell curve and that usually, most people in a given country or region fall within the middle of that curve. We all know that without the extreme ends and the "somewhat outside the norm" areas, the curve would not exist. It's just a curve that visualizes the fact that we are not all the same. We are not born the same, we do not grow the same way, we do not all die the same way, nor at the same time.

And yet we're all supposed to be slim if we aspire to be healthy. There is seemingly no bell curve. This assumption means that, when it comes to weight, we are all actually born at a perfect weight and that it is initially our parents' fault and then ultimately our fault if we no do grow up and maintain that perfect weight at all times.

Why do we accept the natural physical variety that exists in terms of hair colour, height or visual acuity yet persist in believing that everyone's weight naturally falls within a certain, highly limited range?

By assuming that we can actually nip overweight in the bud, before it even gets its insidious tentacles into our bodies, children, as the latest front in the war on obesity, have become just as fair game for the current anti-obesity witch hunt as adults are already.

Nothing my parents (both short) could have done for me in-utero or once I was born could have changed my height. Only corrective lenses have been able to make my vision relatively normal (it's still not great). I colour my now greying hair to give it a colour that I think suits me (and makes me look slightly younger!). In other words, with respect to certain aspects of my physical being, nothing could be done to change it. For certain other aspects, mechanical changes enhance my "shortcomings", but essentially I am who I am.

So what about my weight?

I was born to be round. How round? Probably as round as I am today. I do thank my mother for feeding me nutritious food. She was a pioneer in her day, refusing to stock our pantry with processed junk when all the other families were doing it. Had my mother fed me a steady diet of baloney on white bread with liberal slatherings of "sandwich spread", I might be somewhat heavier today. Had I not gone on a series of fad diets, I might have been slightly lighter today, though menopause plays havoc with the body we thought we knew and changes a lot of the rules of the game.

The point is, though, that I have a genetically programmed weight range and this programming is just as strong as the genes that made me so (adorably, some might hopefully say) short, or gave me my hazel, very astigmatic eyes, or my pretty good intellect (which, I admit, was aided by an intellectually stimulating home environment and some excellent schools, teachers and friends along the way).

Assuming that we can ensure that all children will remain skinny kids hanging out by the water hole or feisty, ultra-athletic mini Wayne Gretskys is as useful as howling at the moon. Saying we are fighting childhood obesity means that we are fighting actual children who were born and will remain round all their lives. That's who they are.

We cannot fight heredity and genetics.

So what can we fight?

  • Poverty, which forces parents to buy the cheapest food that fills a body up. A fast-food meal, overflowing with sodium, processed franken-ingredients and transfats certainly keeps you full longer than an expensive head of broccoli, an apple and cheese that isn't orange and flat.

  • Ignorance. There's a place for all foods in our diets (yes, including fast food burgers), but essentially our diets should be heavily weighted towards fresh, unprocessed (or only lightly processed) products. This means education and awareness and ridding our airwaves of advertising for crap foods. If they could take cigarette advertising off the air, they can do it for ...(insert the name of your favourite junk food here).

  • Prejudice. The fact of the matter is, we weren't all born to become fashion models or great athletes. Sadly, a certain amount of fear and hatred of those who don't conform to the norm is probably part of human nature, but rather than fostering this, we must, as a society, stand up to prejudice and just say no.
But telling the naturally round among us that they are intrinsically BAD? Well, that's just a recipe for disaster, no matter how well meaning we may think we are.


  1. Loved this post. One of the bright spots for me into today's politics is Michelle Obama's crusade to decrease childhood obesity, including building that demonstration garden at the White House. While her efforts are of course not enough it does help to keep the issue of obesity, especially childhood obesity which is rising, in the public spotlight. Ensuring that our children are educated and have access to healthy foods should be one of our nation's highest priorities.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. I think the poverty and ignorance are huge in this fight for sure.... great post

  3. I've tried and tried to compose something intelligent and interesting in response to this post ever since I first read it. But, really, what more needs to be said? You lay it out so clearly.

    I've almost reached the point of overload, too, regarding this damn foolish "war" on obesity, and now bringing CHILDREN into the battlefield?...It's just wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Ugh. I need to chill.

    As if there wasn't enough hatred in the world...Seriously, I'm afraid I might slap the next person I hear in real life who starts up with these horrible attacks against children (and their parents.)

    The worst part for me is knowing that three years ago, or so, when this crap was being thrown out for discussion in nursing classes, I mostly kept my mouth shut because I KNEW I would be seen as a fat person making excuses for fat people. ARGH! And I actually had a health sense of self-esteem before I got immersed in the nursing school BS preaching ELMM. AND I WAS A MIDDLE AGED ADULT!!! I can't imagine what such crap does to vulnerable children. GRRRRRRRRRRR....

    Must. Go. Meditate.

    Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

  4. I'm torn on this topic since I grew up as a fat child and suffered horribly because of it. I also know that the way my mother fed me had a lot to do with it. I was a skinny kid up until 4th grade and my father was skinny up until he became disabled and an alcoholic. My mother not only bought cheap, processed food, but was a lazy cook and dropped the ball entirely on nutrition in favor of what was easiest for her (opening a can of salty green beans, plopping a disgusting blob of canned tomatoes on bread as a "lunch"), and making enough food for an army and getting angry when we didn't eat it.

    I do believe that we are all biologically shaped, but it's hard to deny that more people are a certain shape these days as compared to the past. There's a bell curve and it's skewing due to changes in lifestyle - processed food, easy availability of calorically dense food, inundation with food cues (which incite people to eat even when not hungry), and less manual labor to burn off calories consumed.

    Some kids *are* born to be fat, but some kids are not. They are made that way by outsize food options which are increasingly viewed as the norm and bad choices on the part of their parents. My mother was one of those parents who through ignorance and indifference cultivated both a body and a mind in her children that made them both hyper-obese. I'm not sure if any intervention with me as a child would have lead my life down a different path, but I am not convinced that I was born to be fat. Honestly, I think my sister, who was always chubby, may have been, but not me. That, I have my upbringing to thank for. I also think that, even if both of us were born to be round (certainly a possibility), that we weren't born to be between 300-400 lbs. for much of our adult lives. I could accept I was born to be 5' 4" and 180 lbs., but not 380 lbs.

    I always find your perspective interesting because your life experiences are so dramatically different from mine. You've never been severely obese, and clearly your food experiences as a child were not similar to mine. The world looks different from our respective perspectives, and that's why I keep coming back. It's all valid.

  5. @Screaming Fat Girl (and NewMe):

    I too find NewMe's life experiences incredibly different from mine. In terms of childhood, mostly, and yes the fact that NewMe hasn't had the severe form of obesity that is associated with extreme pain and illnesses.

    One thing that bothers me so much about these so-called "campaigns" to "fight" obesity, especially in children, is the premise that all overweight and obesity is BAD, that it can be changed through individual efforts, etc. The focus is, supposedly, on health, but where is the research to support the claims (implicit) that these media-driven and medically-endorsed campaigns to fight obesity result in any reduced health risks or improved health outcomes? What research are they basing their "fight" on at a social level, when the suggestions they make are for individual behavior changes?

    Research DOES seem to show that fat bias and discrimination is increasing--which has also been shown to increase stress of many kinds, and reduce the number of options for fat people to improve their lives (fat bias results in lower incomes, in general, for fatter people, for instance, and make increase depression and learned helplessness).

    What kinds of improvements (at a social level)would have helped your mother? What resources would have helped her make better choices for herself, and for you, given the circumstances she lived in at the time she was a parent to young children? What social services or changes in social policy would have actually made your life, as a child, better in terms of less suffering and more preparation to proceed into adulthood with fewer burdens to overcome?

    Those are the kinds of things I think about. I seriously doubt (and of course I could be wrong) that any campaign to fight obesity would have helped you or your family to have improved health had the rhetoric resembled (and the programs aimed at individual changes been implemented) that which we are hearing and seeing from media and medical establishments and political influences over recent months.

    Thanks. I hope I stated these points respectfully. I enjoy the discussion!

  6. I was never so discouraged as when I watched my lanky pre-teen son flip the placemat at BK so he could read off the nutritional info on the reverse side. (thanks son; your father has infected you w/his fat phobia)
    I've begged & pleaded w/him not to obsess about calorie counts & fat grams; just eat Real Food & minimize the junk consumption. He likely considers Mom to be a big fat hypocrite since I don't always Walk the Walk. (Yep, I know BK is hardly healthy fare, but traveling w/a horse trailer down the interstate leaves you very few choices ;-)

  7. @hopeful and free: Nothing would have helped my mother or family because my mother was sure she had things right. She never listened to anyone about what was best and was very willful. Even with education, she wouldn't have changed her relationship with us or food because all of her choices were emotionally motivated. She took any resistance to her will as a personal affront. Poverty was only part of the problem. The other part was someone who felt any challenge to her authority undermined her in a way that threatened her esteem.

    Sometimes people are just bad parents, because they have their own issues. Money, education, etc. can't help such people because they are incapable of being helped. My mother is one such person. She hasn't changed at all during her entire life, despite therapy, medication, and the best efforts of those around her.

  8. @Screaming fatgirl: Thanks for your insightful response. It makes me wonder more than ever what could have been done, then, or what could be done nowadays for children like you(compelled by social structures to endure a childhood with parents who were impaired enough to cause harm to offspring yet not considered legally negligent or harmful enough to warrant intervention.) Major gap in protection and care of children due to *parental rights*. Very sad. Such a long and difficult road from that kind of childhood to construct a satisfying life, with many scars and struggles to overcome. So many dysfunctional coping methods could have resulted, some more deadly than eating issues, perhaps, certainly some with much worse fallout for others crossing your path.

    You're a remarkable woman. I'm grateful to have read your entire blog and glimpsed a life of so much dignity and continuing promise.