Why Childhood Obesity Isn’t a Crime Against Humanity

On the Stranger’s blog, aptly named “Slog,” Dan Savage posted about Michelle Obama’s Childhood Obesity Initiative. In favor, generally, but was all about blaming parents for setting a bad example. Commenter Balderdash had this to say:

“Obesity – childhood or otherwise – is, in America, a symptom of a profoundly broken system. Somehow I really doubt that the childhood obesity panel is going to overturn the industrialization of food and the paradigm of advertising as a cornerstone of “free-market democracy,” and so I really don’t see how they’re going to make any difference.

It’s rather like creating a committee to help stop hair loss in cancer patients.”

To Balderdash, I say “amen.”

The problem isn’t childhood obesity. Children who might not in earlier generations not have gained as much weight in childhood as they do now are not lazy, bad, stupid, undereducated about nutrition, insufficiently shamed about being fat or to blame. And I don’t, as Dan Savage does, fault their parents. To me, it’s a story about societal neglect of what children need. One possible sign of this is increased fatness in children, but it’s not by far the worst sign or most reliable one.

According to the national non-profit Food Research and Action Council:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that in 2008:

  • Of the 49.1 million people living in food insecure households (up from 36.2 million in 2007), 32.4 million are adults (14.4 percent of all adults) and 16.7 million are children (22.5 percent of all children).
  • 17.3 million people lived in households that were considered to have “very low food security,” a USDA term (previously denominated “food insecure with hunger”) that means one or more people in the household were hungry over the course of the year because of the inability to afford enough food. This was up from 11.9 million in 2007 and 8.5 million in 2000.
  • Very low food security had been getting worse even before the recession. The number of people in this category in 2008 is more than double the number in 2000.
  • Black (25.7 percent) and Hispanic (26.9 percent) households experienced food insecurity at far higher rates than the national average.

The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University‘s 2009 report “Left Behind in America: The Nation’s Dropout Crisis” paints a particularly bleak picture:

The dropout crisis impacts all of America, but affects men, Blacks, and Hispanics particularly
hard. In 2007, an astounding 16.0% of persons between 16 and 24 years of age (nearly 6.2
million people) were high school dropouts. Among these dropouts, 60.1% were men, 18.8%
were Black, and 30.1% were Hispanic. In addition:
• Nearly one in five U.S. men between the ages of 16-24 (18.9%) were dropouts in 2007.
• Nearly three out of 10 Hispanics were dropouts (27.5%), including recent immigrants.
• More than one of five Blacks had dropped out of school (21%)–versus a dropout rate for
Whites of 12.2%.

So, why focus on childhood obesity, when we know that education and reliable access to food have a bigger impact on future health than merely falling above the 85th or 95th percentile for BMI?

A little personal history here:

In 1978, when I was 9 years old, Proposition 13 was passed in California. Before Prop. 13, I remember the following: Summer school and afterschool activities on the playground. Firework displays in the park behind my house.

After Prop. 13, I watched more TV, as the afterschool activities were no longer funded. And I didn’t play outside as much, because the cruelty of the other kids that I was exposed to when they weren’t directly supervised wasn’t curtailed. My parents didn’t enroll me in any sports (I woudn’t have wanted to as I was always picked last and assumed I completely lacked any athletic ability). I didn’t do dance, or other physical extracurricular activities. My parents did their best to keep the house free of junk food, and I didn’t smuggle it in or hide it in my room or binge on it when I was away from home (well, there was that one time and I was babysitting and there were oreos, but that’s what happens when oreos are contraband). I ate healthy, and grudgingly exercised when I was forced/encouraged to (roller skating, riding a bike, and, uh, Jazzercise). I was fat as a teenager in spite of all of that, due to a combination of (untreated) depression and genes, and, I would say, Proposition 13.

I don’t think there’s a way to talk about childhood obesity as a problem without it sounding like it’s kids or parents or both who are to blame. And fat kids exist. They happen. I happened. Being a fat kid isn’t pathological. It’s an expected result of a system — biological, social, political. It’s the organism doing the best it can to balance the pressures it experiences. Hunger, food insecurity, high rates of dropouts, poor health among people who aren’t able to earn enough money to live, or to buy the tasty healthy foods that wealthier people enjoy — also expected results of a system.

Michelle Obama talks about her own “wake up call” about her children’s health. And the pediatrician that spoke with her about her daughters’ weights and told her to change her ways may have done something good for the wrong reason. It’s possible that the foods Sasha and Malia were eating weren’t best for their optimal growth. Or that the amount of physical activity (or time spent with a parent) wasn’t optimal, either. But if a couple like the Obama’s assumed that the “lifestyle” they were living wasn’t unhealthy until someone called it to their attention in a way that caught their attention (“your daughters might end up FAT if you don’t do anything about it!”), what about most people who are working parents, whose children watch TV and eat what their peers eat and move as much as their peers move? I don’t doubt that some children may be eating more calories than their parents did, but I also don’t blame the children or parents if this is the case.

If we really want healthier children, we need to improve access to nutritious, tasty, culturally acceptable foods, we need to invest in programs that keep students in school so they can graduate. We need to stop thinking of physical activity as either “performance-based” (sports) or punishment, and realize that there are many changes we can make to physical education to allow children and young adults to discover a lifelong appreciation for their bodies and for how regular movement allows them to feel, and to reach their own goals. We need safer places for children to play, and we need to allow them to play, not have everything they do structured and planned and monitored and tracked. I see that my own child loves to play, and sometimes that’s a chasing game that results in 30 minutes of running around the house, and other times, it’s an afternoon spent in quiet play with a new friend. There’s so much we need, not only fresh air, exercise, drinkable water, nutritious, tasty food, family, friends, belonging, learning, exploring, love, etc. etc. etc.

I hope that Michelle Obama knows all of this, and is attempting to capitalize on the national touchstone that childhood obesity has become. I suppose the people she is hoping to appeal to, middle-to-upper class (mostly white) people, are freaked out by fat children, fat children seem unnatural and unappealing to them. Michelle Obama is hoping to rally energy and money around this issue, but it’s not a lack of energy or awareness that has us where we are with food insecurity, dropout rates, or other metrics that I care more about than the supposed increase in fat children. It’s flat out malicious neglect. Pretending we’re worried about children when what we’re really worried about is fatness not only creates more casualties, it creates rifts between children and parents, and children and their own bodies.

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