There is a great deal of talk today about childhood obesity, and while that is true, we need to find a happy medium between focusing on a healthy weight and encouraging girls to hyper focus on thinness. We seem to either have it one way or the other.
Kids today are much heavier than thirty years ago. A great deal about our society has changed over the last thirty years. There are more single parents, more fast food, more video games, and less playtime outdoors. Our schools’ nutrition services have taken a big hit when it comes to discussing childhood obesity.
I see many school lunches and while some of what is served is not the best, there has been a vast improvement in the quality of the food over the last few years. Due to an increased emphasis on testing, recess time has decreased in order to increase time spent in the classroom. Parents tired from a long day at work cook less at home and the inexpensive nature of fast food makes it all too inviting. Children no longer play outside after school; some students cannot go outside to play because their neighborhoods are unsafe or because they do not have adult supervision. Many students, however, tell me that they would much rather play video games.
Whether a child is overweight or not there is a great deal of pressure on children, especially girls, to conform to a certain body type. Movies, television, singers, actresses and models all present an image for girls on how they are ‘supposed’ to look. Clothes only come in certain sizes and if you need a “plus” size, you won’t find it in the store and if it is in the store the styles are not the same and they are seldom attractive. Fashion designers seem to think large people all want clothes made out of polyester and dark colors. Little girls wind up wearing petites which means they are wearing womens’ clothes and are unable to wear anything that the other girls wear, which is embarrassing.
All of this leads to a big problem we face in our schools…size bias. Just like many forms of bullying, this trickles down from adults. People who are over weight or even just larger are seen as lazy, stupid, inferior or dirty. The kids who consider themselves the “in crowd” will not interact with them. Their self-esteem plummets and by third grade many of these students are engaging in eating disorders. They binge eat or don’t eat at all. They long to look like the “normal” kids and will do whatever they can to try to emulate that image to the best of their ability. I have had many kids, male and female, come to my office in tears because they are tired of being called “fat”, “lazy”, “tub of lard” or even worse names by their classmates. I run self-esteem groups in both middle and elementary school all year long to help students deal with a world fixated on thinness.
A recent ad campaign in Georgia, Strong4Life, aimed at reducing childhood obesity outraged many people. It showed photos of overweight children with captions indicating that the children may inherit diabetes, or not out live their parents. The ads appeared on billboards. One Atlanta writer, Ragen Chastain launched a “Support All Kids” campaign. In just a few hours she raised enough money to put up billboards of her own countering the outrageous and offensive Strong4Life billboards. The National Eating Disorders Association has joined her in these efforts. When things such as dieting are not closely supervised by a doctor and done in moderation, children often fall into eating disorders.
I’m not saying that children do not need to be taught to make good choices when it comes to eating, getting more exercise and watching their weight, but I also do not think that only children who have weight issues need to be taught this. I also do not believe that all this focus on “perfection” that children see in magazines, on tv, and in the movies should be held in such esteem. We need to teach children good habits while also teaching them to accept themselves and to treat others whether they are small, large or somewhere in-between with respect. I’ll close with a quote from J.K. Rowling on the subject of size:
“‘Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her.
I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me; but then, you might retort, what do I know about the pressure to be skinny? I’m not in the business of being judged on my looks, what with being a writer and earning my living by using my brain. I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’
‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’
What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!
I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin’. And frankly, I’d rather they didn’t give a gust of stinking chihuahua flatulence whether the woman standing next to them has fleshier knees than they do. Let my girls be Hermiones, rather than Pansy Parkinsons.”
- J.K. Rowling