End the war on childhood obesity.

March 10 2011 1:07 PM

Leave the Fat Kids Alone

Efforts to fix childhood obesity are aiming at the wrong target.

Read about Slate's project to generate new ideas for fighting childhood obesity here, and submit your own idea here.

A cafeteria worker supervises lunches for school children. Click image to expand.
Will it help kids more if we focus on "health" instead of "obesity"?

Let's get one thing straight: I wasn't a fat kid; I was husky. At least that's what it said on the labels of my pants. Maybe not the navy sweats I wore to school three times a week, but the other pants—the slacks, the dungarees, the husky dungarees.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Did the other kids notice my husk? Did they care? At camp one summer, a French boy called me a cochon. A third-grade jock who would later play minor-league baseball whispered about my fat ass on the bus. But while I was ready for much worse, it never came. I wasn't that big, after all—just a little wide—and then I was distractingly weird, the kind of kid who entertained himself by trying to write out the digits of a googolplex in class. A cochon, maybe, mais aussi et surtout, a nerd.

So why is this image so vivid in my mind: A rectangular grid, with dots penciled in between rounded lines, marking off my weight in six-month intervals between the ages of 10 and 13? I can summon that piece of graph paper from memory and mentally trace its growth curves—there were five of them, one for the average boy and two each for the "accelerated" kids and the "retarded" ones. I was ahead of my peers. My father, a mathematician, took the measurements and applied the dots, connecting them with a jagged line that dipped toward the mean while Reagan was in office, then surged up the Y-axis. This is how I learned about standard deviations: See Daniel at 11, in his new aviator-style glasses, weighing 45 kilograms, and fatter than 68 percent of the kids his age. Now, a year later, prepping for his bar mitzvah and approaching the 95th percentile. Obesity. Be careful with your diet, my father told me. It might be time to stop buying cranberry muffins after school; they're like slices of cake.

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I didn't give up the muffins, but never mind: A growth spurt stretched me into the "normal" range, and husky pants became a thing of the past. Yet that homespun screening—the charts and measurements and recommendations for lifestyle change—didn't fail to leave a mark. They helped create in me a lasting, if mild, preoccupation with body size that's no less disturbing for its banality. Among women, at least, or the women I know, such concerns are hardly worth mentioning—they're a given. But these anxieties don't arrive encoded in our genomes. We may emerge from the womb with a propensity for overeating or fat storage. Ceaseless self-scrutiny: That's the sort of trait that develops later on, in childhood or adolescence. If most of us end up a wee bit anorexic—or manorexic, as the case may be—our early experiences write the script.

When it comes to fat, public-health officials love to talk about the formative years. We're told that three-quarters of obese children grow up to be obese adults, at which point they have a hell of a time losing weight and keeping it off. So maybe we ought to target the fatties in the bloom of youth, when their rosy cheeks are just starting to fill out with subcutaneous adipose tissue. You can change a child's habits when he's still impressionable, the argument goes, when his body is still in flux. That's one of the theories behind Michelle Obama's Let's Move! program, and it's at the core of Slate's newest Hive project: Get to kids early, and try to make a difference.

What sort of difference you'll make isn't so easy to figure. It's nice to imagine there's some critical period of development when our physiologies can be reprogrammed for thinness. But the same logic applies just as well to the mind as the body. Tell a little kid he's fat (or obese, or at elevated risk of obesity, or whatever clinical spin you put on it) and you might help him to eat his fruits and veggies—but watch what happens to his bendy little brain. Get in there early enough, and even the best intentions can metastasize into a deep-seated anxiety. What happens in the mind of an adolescent could be inscribed there for years to come.

The war on obesity includes plenty of tactics that aren't likely to make anyone feel bad. Some of the proposals that receive the most attention—increasing supermarket access, ending farm subsidies, and so forth—have nothing at all to do with individuals. But these calls for systemic change often come alongside a more insidious argument—sometimes made by public-health experts and spilling forth from other corners—that it helps to make things personal now and again. A little bit of stigma can go a long way. The problem with America, we hear, is that we're mollycoddling the heavies, too afraid of hurting their feelings to say what needs to be said. Happy, fat-themed sitcoms teach Americans that it's trendy to be fat. Obesity—ugly, life-threatening obesity—has gotten normalized.

This idea—that we've gone soft in more ways than one—has come up again and again in Slate's effort to crowdsource a remedy for overweight children. "Schools should actively stigmatize being fat," writes one member of the Hive; "few things are more terrifying to a kid than being an outcast." Another declares, "We need to stop telling children to 'love themselves the way they are.'" A third suggests that the government take custody of any child with obese parents, as a way to "get both parents and children motivated to exercise and eat healthy."

These proposals are so plainly ill-advised, so thoroughly at odds with the available evidence on the causes of obesity, and so utterly detrimental to the welfare of our children, that I can only indulge in the fantasy that they're meant as satire. Let's be realistic, though: They're not. And their presence in the Hive—among many other suggestions, to be sure—reflects the danger of equating a child's health with the shape of his body.

Let's consider what's known about weight stigma. If it's really true that America suffers from a lack of tough love, and that's why we got so fat in the first place, then you might expect the nation's swelling obesity rates to have arrived on a wave of warm fuzzies. But we've seen just the opposite, says Rebecca Puhl of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (a leading advocate for the soda tax, among many other aggressive anti-obesity interventions). No one has been giving fat people a free ride. In fact, the prevalence of weight-based discrimination has increased by two-thirds since the mid-1990s; even middle-schoolers are getting meaner. The Hive tells us that to fight obesity we must "go on the offensive against obese people." Just look at the data. We tried that approach, and it didn't work.

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