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Michelle Obama Talks Fat

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Michelle Obama is once again on the chopping block -- except this time, it's for using the F-word.

the obamas

Ronda Kaysen: Michelle Obama launched her anti-obesity campaign today, and like all things Obama lately, it received a heaping helping of criticism. Michelle, it seems, is a "bad mama" for using her daughter Malia's struggle with weight as a talking point.

In shopping her new campaign, Michelle repeatedly shared the story of how she took her daughters to the pediatrician a few years back and was told that Malia's body mass index (BMI) was high. The family subsequently cut back on sugary drinks, TV and junk food -- and Malia shed the extra pounds.

Critics came out in force to give Michelle a proper tongue-lashing for calling her baby "fat."

"While her heart is in the right place, Michelle may not have considered or been familiar with the delicate balance between preventing obesity and triggering eating disorders," Psychology Today scolded. "She mentioned that she put her children on a diet after her pediatrician and their father felt they were getting 'chubby.' Words like 'chubby' don't cause eating disorders, but they are often a trigger to disordered eating behavior."

And Jeanne Sager in Strollerderby -- who admits she reads everything through "eating-disordered glasses" -- wrote, "I worry about the Obama girls.... Their mother is trying for the greater good, but she's taken an extremely touchy subject out into the open."

All I can say to Jeanne Sager is: Relax. Sager found it "disturbing" that a doctor would ever consider the "extremely skinny" Obama girls overweight. Why is that so disturbing? Maybe they were overweight. And maybe Malia doesn't mind that her mom is telling the world that she changed her eating habits and lost weight. Maybe Malia's proud of it.

The point that critics are missing here is that it's okay to talk about weight. In fact, it's good to talk about it. If we spent less time worrying about how we might offend people for stating what is, in fact, a medical problem, and more time actually trying to tackle the epidemic head-on, there might not be so many middle-school kids with type 2 diabetes.

American society treats obesity like the elephant in the room: You get pegged as an insensitive Neanderthal if you call someone "fat." But the truth is -- BMI index aside -- fat is a problem. A big one. And it's a big problem with our kids. Until we start talking about it openly, it's only going to get bigger.

Not all cultures think talking about fat should be taboo. France, for example, handled its childhood-obesity epidemic openly and in a systematic way. Health officials there began weighing and measuring kids annually; if a child was found to be overweight, his or her parents got a letter from school telling them how to address the problem. Leaflets on how to eat better were handed out in certain schools and towns, and parents were given guidelines about diet and exercise for their children. Dietitians visited schools to talk about healthy eating. The result of all this? Kids in the towns with the programs lost weight (and their mothers did too!), while kids in the rest of the country got fatter. The program was so successful, in fact, that other European countries have since copied it.

I think that if we spent less time treating "fat" like a dirty word and more time worrying about how we can lose it, we might, as a society, be healthier in mind and spirit. Michelle Obama, in using her daughter as a talking point, was trying to remove a social stigma about fat. After all, fat is a public health problem -- so there's nothing wrong with discussing it publicly.

next: Nancy Kerrigan's Dad's Death Ruled a Homicide
7 comments so far | Post a comment now
bgirl February 9, 2010, 12:06 PM

If this were on facebook, I would definitely hit the ‘like’ button. Well said.

RamyS February 9, 2010, 12:43 PM

Although I think this is a great article and agree with the principle points you raise. I do not think Michelle meant anything other than using her own family as an example. As if to say just because we are an influential well off family in the public eye, we are real and so is this epidemic. I really think it was her way of saying she identifies instead of some thing rich woman standing up there saying things that she has no idea what she is talking about or has never encountered this.

MommaToNico February 9, 2010, 3:38 PM

Mrs. Obama may have spoke with her daughters before talking publicly, and probably took their feelings into consideration.

Angela February 9, 2010, 6:43 PM

I would like to think that Michelle first consulted with Malia to make sure she was comfortable sharing her story. If she didn’t she should have, but I have no way of knowing that.

Becky February 11, 2010, 7:04 AM

Everyone always comments on how wonderful Michelle’s arms are, but no one ever says how big the rest of her body is.

karen Schachter Frank February 11, 2010, 6:41 PM

Thanks for this great article. I couldn’t agree more! By making the word “fat” a “BAD WORD” we are making being fat, in and of, itself, “bad” whereas it is, in fact, not a moral judgment. It’s a potential health issue. And any mother who is focused on her child’s health is acting in her child’s BEST INTEREST. (This is completely different, by the way, from saying, “You look fat. You look bad. I want you to lose weight because fat is bad, and you look bad.”). THAT causes insecurity and an overfocus on a child’s appearance. Michelle is simply focused on health and on improving not only her daughters’ health, but the health of all children.
I applaud her.

mike ross February 16, 2010, 9:52 AM

read what real medical people say about her idea!

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