As theory seems to have it these days, to get rid of big (read: adult) overweight people, we need to get rid of little (read: child) overweight people first. Kind of like finding vermin’s nests and destroying the eggs.
Maybe this isn’t really the mindset that drives the current efforts to quell childhood obesity—it is scary that young children face health problems generally meant for a significantly older population—but some recent attempts to increase public awareness of the issue could make the viewer feel that way. Noble tactics to help make kids healthier, like attempts to modify cafeteria fare or video games that center around physical activity, have given way to more extreme measures popping up in the past few months: In Atlanta, billboards display oversized black-and-white photographs of obese children with captions like, “Warning: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not,” or, “Warning: Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line.” Meanwhile, the latest entertainment experience at Disney’s Epcot center, Habit Heroes, stars overweight supervillains named things like “The Snacker,” “The Glutton,” and “Lead Bottom.” Both of these awareness campaigns have raised the public’s hackles by questioning whether we’re creating a shame-fest that hurts overweight children more than helps them.
I’ve wanted to talk about the focus on childhood obesity since the release of the public service ads in Georgia. Being someone who grew up as fat kid in the outskirts of Atlanta, the campaign hit close to home in more ways than one. The Epcot show hit almost as close, since I attended undergrad in Orlando and had a season pass to the Disney parks all four years; I spent much of my time on weekends wandering Epcot or one of its sister parks while inhaling Disney-branded salt water taffy and fudge. If I’d been born a couple decades later, this era of public service ads featuring obese children would have been the culture I grew up in.
I didn’t write initially because I felt that enough other bloggers expressed my viewpoint. A quip from Yoni Freedhoff at Weighty Matters encapsulates it best: “Geez, kids these days, they just don’t try hard enough, do they?” There were, of course, others with differing viewpoints, like this blogger at Blisstree.com who thinks we use society as a scapegoat and parents just need to learn to take responsibility for their kids. In general, though, the debate seems pretty straight forward, the sides fairly clearly delineated.
Perhaps the main point in favor of the ads is that they’re really meant for parents, not for kids. Think of it like those hidden jokes in children’s movies that the kids won’t get but will keep Mom and Dad entertained in the theater. Disney’s mastered these hidden gems; maybe that was part of their intent with the Habit Heroes show. Kids will just see a fun ride where they turn junk food into broccoli, while parents realize arch-villian Lead Bottom is very similar to their kid, who sits at home playing video games all afternoon. The end of the show, when Lead Bottom becomes a normal-sized kid who plays outside, just illustrates that no overweight kid is really a villain, it’s just her bad habits that make her that way; once she picks up the good habits, she’ll be a good guy again.
Unfortunately, exhibits like this one, or ads like the ones from Georgia’s ads, assume a fair amount of emotional maturity from the kids who view the campaigns alongside their parents. The psychology of children is inherently different from that of adults, and children may not pick up all the nuances of a message. These campaigns assume a kid watching the show will understand that there’s nothing wrong with them as people, even though overweight children are presented as bad guys. The campaigns assume that non-overweight children seeing the shows or the ads will not use them as new ammo against their overweight peers, who they may already tease. Yet if you ever peruse literature on brain development in children and adolescents (yeah—a great way to spend a Friday night, I know), it’s pretty clear that kids don’t gain the ability to see outside of black-and-white terms, to analyze and breakdown arguments, until they’re in their late teens. Before that, they’re able to see the most apparent message—overweight kids are villains—and not necessarily the underlying nuance. For parents, it ends up being a tricky line to walk when encouraging a child to pick up healthy habits to lose weight without making it come across as the kid is unworthy or unloveable because of her size.
I know these questions were something I only learned to navigate as an adult, looking back on my childhood. At the time, no matter how well the words were sugar-coated, I still knew something was not right with me because I was larger than my peers. I knew it seemed stupid and mean that I wasn’t supposed to eat as much at meals or that Mom was replacing our regular snacks with ridiculous, “healthy” snacks that none of my friends’ parents made them eat. My skinnier friends could have donuts for breakfast and McDonald’s for dinner, but it was okay because they were skinny. The issue wasn’t health, it was size, and I could see that, if not fully understand it. And because I couldn’t understand why my friends’ habits and my habits could have such different results on our bodies, I learned that something was wrong with me and my body.
Did I eat too many sweets and processed foods as a kid? Yes. Did I not exercise enough? Sure. But the irony was my parents did make an effort to do everything that parents are supposed to do: they signed me up for swim team and basketball leagues, they encouraged my brothers and I to play soccer in the front yard, we ate as a family for every breakfast and dinner (and lunch on the weekends), we ate out a total of once per week, our diet included plenty of veggies, most of our grains were some variety of whole. So I’m not entirely sure what seeing one of these public service announcements would have done to help them to make our family healthier. We did what we were supposed to. We played by the rules.
So why was I fat?
In short, knowing the rules wasn’t enough. At the time, I wouldn’t have been able to explain the logic. After school hours I spent mostly alone, raiding the cupboards for low-fat frozen yogurt and cookies and watching every Fox Kids television show in production. One of my parents would take me to the library each week, where I’d check out a pile of books (the rule was that I had to be able to carry them all without help), so when not watching television, I would read one to two novels per day. It was quite possible for me to never leave the love seat in the living room except for dinner and to refill my snacks. My parents tried to change things: my brothers and I signed contracts about how many hours of television we’d watch per week, they sent us to sports-themed after school programs, they reduced the amount of junk floating around the cupboards at any given point. Yet I continued to gain weight, eating bread and cheese when sweets disappeared from the cupboards, staying on the sidelines reading at after school program.
Now I can look back and see that the underlying cause was that I was lonely. My brothers were enough older to not want to be bothered me; the neighborhood had too few children my age and was too difficult for a kid to reasonably navigate; I felt like an outcast at school because of my general nerdiness. My lack of coordination made any type of competitive sport nerve-wracking and left me crying on the sidelines—and most physical activity available to me was, in some way, competitive. So I stuck with the things I knew made me happy and helped me feel good about myself: reading and school work and ongoing television series with characters who could stand in as friends in my imagination.
And perhaps my parents did say yes to treats too often, and didn’t push me enough to participate in the sports I hated because they knew these other things made me happy. Because, they, like most modern parents, were juggling careers plus the bonus of an autistic eldest son and two fairly needy younger kids (There was a while my mom had to cart me two to three times a week to get allergy shots because I was allergic to every possible allergen floating in the Atlanta air, and, as a result, could barely breathe and was plagued by chronic headaches. And I didn’t like shots, or missing an episode of Power Rangers, so this would result in about two to three tantrums per week). If being a bookworm and eating an order of French fries after a doctor’s appointment was an easy way to make me happy, why not give in once in a while? Particularly since it wasn’t like they could suddenly make me one of the popular kids at school or make the doctor’s visits go away.
When discussing overeating on an individual basis, we often discuss looking at emotional triggers that disguise themselves as hunger. Magazine articles that talk about calling a friend when lonely, or taking a power nap when tired, or painting your nails when stressed, but these suggestions skip the important step of being able to recognize the underlying emotion and accept that it’s there. In other words, if I don’t feel like I have a right to be stressed or that I should be able to handle one day to myself, it’s hard to accept the emotions and fully treat them. In fact, I may bury them so well that I can’t recognize them to begin with.
I wonder if something similar happens when we talk about treating obesity on a larger scale, particularly when we talk about treating childhood obesity. I wonder if we harp too much on ideas like kids play too many video games or families eat fast food too much and instead need to ask why these things happen, why simple education that these habits aren’t healthy isn’t always enough?
In some ways, I’m talking about whether there are enough measures to make building the healthy habits possible in the first place. Freedhoff writes on Weighty Matters, “Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.” I think these thoughts expand to the parental level as well: Does it make sense to talk to parents about how unhealthy it is to eat out or order take out if we don’t do something to help make fast, healthy options for those short on time?
In some ways, though, I’m asking about larger reasons and motivations behind our drives. Why do we not have enough time or energy to make healthy meals for our families in the first place? How has American lifestyle—our priorities, our standards of living—changed over time to create this deficiency? When treating childhood obesity, we must consider how changes in the American lifestyle has affected American childhood. Those fighting childhood obesity rant about kids not playing outside anymore, but more than enticing video games or shows have probably set them in that direction: maybe it’s that their neighborhood isn’t designed for play, maybe it is that physical activity is usually organized and competitive, maybe they’re so busy living up to the Harvard-or-bust schooling to have time for real playing, or any number of other reasons.
Rather than assuming that kids suddenly have become unable to maintain healthy habits that they have for centuries, we must consider why they don’t maintain those habits on an individual level, then understand what about our environment perpetuates that inability. Because much of my hunger stemmed from loneliness, when I built up friendships in high school and college, my eating habits naturally shifted towards the ones my parents tried to model for me. To this day, if I feel like I’m misunderstood or lonely, I head straight for the candy aisle. Now, I can remember to keep myself scheduled with time with friends to keep me sane, but as a kid, I didn’t know. In other words, maybe when considering our kids’ nutrition and weight, we should also consider their emotional wellbeing, and view “Habit Heroes” simply as sidekicks.