Childhood Obesity

There’s something I’ve been mulling for a while and I saw an article yesterday that finally kicked me into gear to post about it. Here’s the article:

Grim childhood obesity ads stir critics

A group in Atlanta began running ads to shine light on the obesity epidemic they are facing. On its face, seems like a good idea, right? But as somebody who grew up obese, let me tell you, not one overweight child in the world doesn’t know that they’re overweight. I keep coming back to that as I look at this story. Who are they advertising to? At first I was mystified at who these kids are that need to be told they’re overweight – have other kids changed that much since I was a kid that they now aren’t informing the overweight kids every single goddamned day that they’re fat and therefore worthless?

But I read further and saw that the people who, apparently, like these ads are parents (I guess?) who are in denial about their children. It seems there are parents who are completely incapable of objectively observing their child and determining that some dietary and environmental changes need to be made. Which, I guess, is where I get a little confused as well. I spent my entire childhood being mocked, teased, berated, humiliated, insulted and generally abused for being fat – by my parent. I was made eminently aware, every day, that I was an unacceptable size and that I should probably be happy I was smart and work really hard at school, because I sure as hell wasn’t physically acceptable.

But back to the story. Here’s what I think won’t work: Informing overweight kids that they’re overweight and it’s a problem. Or informing parents that their kids are overweight and they should “do something about it.” Let me tell you, as somebody who grew up morbidly obese in this culture, there’s no way in hell that kids who are overweight don’t know it. And there’s no way in hell they don’t know that it’s a problem. It’s a problem for them every single minute of every single day. At least it was for me. I used to pray as hard as I could every night that God would make me normal sized. I would make bargains that I would happily die young if I could just be normal sized for a few years. That’s how desperately important it was to me to be normal – I would have happily traded years of my life just to spend a few days not being mocked and abused by my peers and family.

I dreamed of being sent to the Fat Camps that advertised in the backs of teen magazines (we couldn’t afford it). I starved myself for days occasionally, hoping that would do the trick. My parent tried to “do something about it” – I was constantly reminded I was fat, and put on one diet program after another. You know what? I tried everything, and nothing worked because the one thing I actually needed, I couldn’t get.

Information and support. I had no idea about the math involved in metabolic functions, I had no idea that there were ways to bring my caloric needs in line with my caloric intake, nor how to measure or track those numbers. For all of those diets I was put on, nobody ever sat me down and said, “And this is WHY we eat these foods – they have low caloric density and that’s important because…” I had no way to deal with the abject feelings of worthlessness and failure that growing up fat imprinted in my mind. I had no money of my own, and therefore no way to ensure I had a supportive food environment – I had to eat what was available in our house. And most of all, had no coping skills for social situations – and when you’re a kid, all of your eating situations are social. I didn’t want to seem different or weird to the other kids but I didn’t know how not to when I was on another one of those diets I got put on, so inevitably I cheated and failed.

I’m not saying I know the answer for how to talk to overweight kids about it without scarring them to life. I’m saying that they don’t need to be reminded that they’re overweight, they don’t need to be told they’re subpar, or a problem to be solved. They already know. What I think would have helped me was a huge dose of information about how nutrition, calories and metabolic math works, a supportive food environment where the choices available to me weren’t going to shoot me in the foot, somebody to suggest going for a walk and then going with me and talking about interesting topics that don’t focus on my weight, and some ideas about how to seem normal in front of peers while working on managing my weight. Boy I wish we’d had the internet in the ’80s. I could have found a lot of this information with a few nudges in the right directions (but just googling “weight loss” is such a bad, bad, bad idea that I don’t recommend that in the least – too many quacks selling too much junk science).

And please, if you’re an adult, don’t make it a big deal. They already know how awful it is that they’re overweight – they hear it every day from their peers. Nobody – absolutely nobody – ever succeeded at weight loss or weight management because they were mocked, shamed, and humiliated.


5 Responses to “Childhood Obesity”

  1. Michelle Hogan Says:

    Thanks, Laina. I’ve been reading your e-mails for a few months, but this is the first time I’ve commented. I lost 120 pounds and have kept it off for two years, and it is a constant daily commitment. You are an important part of my support network now. The only thing I’d add to today’s column is that we probably could have used more compassion and care too.

  2. Shana Says:

    There is no way for an ad campaign to fix the problem. Knowledge of proper nutrition is not the priority that it should be. The sad fact is that many parents have no idea about the math either. The only way I can see to help a child who is obese is for the whole family to slowly change the way they are eating and exercising without making a big deal out of it. I am happy that it is not a problem that I had with my children.

  3. Karen Williams Says:

    It’s interesting how “health” class didn’t cover these kinds of things in high school, either. When I started gaining weight after moving out to California, I had no idea what to do either. I finally found a couple of good programs that told me exactly what you found: how to know which foods have a reasonable amount of calories, and how to eat low-calorie foods and not feel hungry.

  4. Tracy Renae Cote Serros Says:

    This post makes me sad… Who are those poor children in those awful ads??

    I was also bullied about my weight growing up by my mom and made fun of by my dad and other male members of my family. It was really humiliating, and it’s hard to even express how devastating that is when you’re a kid. Putting those kids’ pictures on those ads like they’re wanted posters or something is just cruel.

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