What is your gut reaction to an image like this?
In case you haven’t heard, there has been a sharp increase in childhood obesity in the U.S. in the last decade. It’s actually estimated the current generation of children being born may be the first generation not to outlive their parents. This is specifically related to the rise in obesity and the severity of obesity related health conditions. While many choose to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the issue, others, such as the Obesity Action Coalition are seeking ways to educate parents, teachers and healthcare providers on how together we can work to address this alarming rise in obesity among our children. Still others, who shall remain nameless (but not for long), feel the best route to address childhood obesity is to shame the children and blame the parents. This alarming campaign uses children affected by obesity on billboards and in ads with statements that make these children and others direct targets for the haters and the bullies. Some of the ads state, “Fat Kids Become Fat Adults,” and “Big Bones Didn’t Make Me This Way, Big Meals Did.” Since the bullies didn’t have nearly enough hurtful, demeaning taunts for kids affected by obesity, I would like to publicly thank Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for providing fresh fuel for the fire.
I was that fat kid in school. On the first day of first grade, I was greeted with, “Hello, Chub Chub.” I heard that greeting for the next 12 years. Of course, that was 40 years ago. There were only 2 of us “fatties” in our first grade class. In middle school, there were 5 of us. Not a single one of us had parents that were obese. I played on the high school tennis team (not very well, but that’s another story), I rode my bike, I grew up on a farm where I helped out by walking behind the tobacco setter and picked up rocks in the field, meaning I ate what my parents ate, I was active, but I was still an obese child and an obese teenager and an obese adult. I have been made fun of my whole life because of my weight and it didn’t help me lose a single pound.
If shaming worked, then in high school I would have been wearing those cute size 3 Levi’s, not the Lane Bryant 18s with the rainbow stitching down the leg. Instead, this is how shaming works. You have someone who is already overweight, obese, “fat”. Chances are pretty high they already have low self esteem, a low sense of self worth and are already self isolating from others as protection from the shame, blame and ridicule of the bullies. You feel miserable and alone. What’s the one thing that may bring a brief temporary feeling of pleasure? Carb laden food (which creates a chemical reaction that stimulates the pleasure center in our brain). Which you eat in private to self medicate those deeply wounded feelings of despair. Then afterward, you feel so guilty and so shameful that a vicious cycle begins.
Wow, shaming is obviously so effective for treating obesity, let’s move on to blaming. Any time anything is not quite right in our world, there has to be fault, right? Not our fault of course, but someone’s fault. The sooner you assign blame to someone else, the sooner you’re no longer part of the problem, but part of the solution, right? I hope by now you’ve realized my level of sarcasm is off the chart today!
When I was a new mom, (24 years ago!) I had absolutely no idea what my son was supposed to weigh or how much weight he was supposed to gain at what intervals. When we would go in for well baby visits and the pediatrician would tell me he was in the 99th percentile for weight or “off the chart” I didn’t know that was a bad thing. I heard 99th percentile and correlated that to making a 99% on a test, it must be good, right? It was never explained to me as a new mother that the target was the 50th percentile. [INSERT OPPORTUNITY FOR EDUCATION HERE!] We bottle fed our children with formula. Since they were “big babies” they needed more food, right? We started putting cereal in their formula at 3 months. [INSERT OPPORTUNITY FOR EDUCATION HERE!] As the boys became older, we continued not to allow soda in our house; however, I now know the amount of juice they were drinking was empty liquid calories. [INSERT OPPORTUNITY FOR EDUCATION HERE!] There are many other opportunities for education of our parents and our children regarding: portion sizes, food choices, how to read a nutrition label, how various foods make our bodies feel and how those foods affect how our bodies run.
Wake up people! We as a nation did not just wake up one morning to find 68 percent of us overweight or obese. We did not wave a magic Twinkie wand that caused 1 out of 3 of our children to become affected by obesity. If we could all just choose our weight, I’m pretty confident very few of us would choose to have a BMI that puts our health at risk and makes us fodder for Jay Leno. I’m equally confident our children would not choose to be made fun of or to be bullied every day simply because of their size. It is time we acknowledge that obesity is a complex, multi-factorial disease process that requires multiple avenues of treatment. We have to begin early to focus on prevention by educating our parents, teachers and children. We have to provide access to all levels of treatment for all levels of obesity. But wait, that might cost money, right? It will, but it won’t cost nearly as much as the treatments for all of the obesity related health conditions we currently treat: diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, reflux, cancer. We do cover treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, reflux and cancer; we would never dream of not covering those treatments. So why do we not cover the same level of treatment for adult and childhood obesity? Oh, I know, because shaming and blaming is so much more effective, right? Oh, and its cheaper too, right? Hmmm, I believe those billboards, ads, and websites were pretty expensive. Money much better spent on classes, training, education, screening and treatment. But if we did that…it might mean we were treating obesity like a complex, multi-factorial disease process.