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Stop Picking on Malia and Sasha's Weight!

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It's not fair ... no matter what anybody says.

the obamas

Jeanne Sager: Like many American parents, when I hear First Lady Michelle Obama will be speaking on parenting issues, I perk up my ears to hear what she has to say.

But when I heard Mrs. Obama describe her daughters' past struggles with their weight, for just a moment I ceased to be a mother. I was once again a teenaged girl hiding in my parents bathroom with the shower running at full blast to mask the unmistakable sounds of me throwing up.

And then just as quickly, I was back in my home office, my daughter crawling out from my desk brandishing the Lego brick she'd rescued from behind my computer. My daughter whose presence made me come to grips once and for all with the power an eating disorder has had over my life for more than a decade.

It was from a unique vantage point that I looked at Mrs. Obama's decision to open her daughter's medical issues to the world, and when I sat down to defend Malia and Sasha Obama in a blog post for Babble's Strollerderby, I was aware that mine is not the view of the average parent. It certainly wasn't the view of Mrs. Obama, who thought that talking about her own family was the best way to reach the country's parents on one of our most pressing issues.

I don't believe Mrs. Obama was trying to hurt her daughters. Nor do I believe describing her one misstep is an indictment of her overall power to serve as a fabulous role model to American women.

But despite rampant criticism in the past week, including right here on momlogic, where Ronda Kaysen told me to "relax,", I am still hesitant to condone a parent talking publicly about her child's struggles with weight, to allow a human child to become as Kaysen termed Malia Obama "a talking point."

She isn't just a talking point. She's a living, breathing child. And while it's true that she could be proud of her weight loss and proud to have the world know, she could just as easily be like most tweens - embarrassed that every kid in her school just heard about her weight on the evening news. In a nation of oversharing, we have forgotten that our kids deserve privacy too, that growing up is hard enough without mom tweeting about your first period or facebooking about your first chin hairs.

Making the situation particularly precarious is the fact that this "talking point" is one on the verge of puberty, when a girl's body begins to change in ways that are both confusing and uncontrollable. Tween girls suddenly sprout hips, see silvery stretchmarks fan out across her thighs where the skin has changed. And there is nothing they are able to do about it. Add in a nation debating "is she" or "isn't she" in regards to her weight, and it's a lot of pressure for a someone who is -- celebrity or not -- just a child.

Lack of control tops the National Eating Disorders Association's (NEDA) list of triggers for eating disorders. Similarly, feeling overwhelmed is cited over and over again by eating disorder sufferers -- both male and female. Couple that with what is know about children -- they are still relatively literal in their interpretations of criticism - and sharing one child's weight with the world ceases to sound like a viable means of meeting a national crisis head-on.

It's not fair to two little girls whose dad just happens to be president to become victims of a national agenda. They probably won't start throwing up tomorrow -- and for their sakes, I hope not -- but they've been now officially been introduced to weight-based language. They have joined the ranks of millions of Americans who pin their hopes on a number on a scale, ignoring the role genetics and lifestyle play in shaping an appropriate, healthy weight for one's body.

Just as the faces of Americans do not have a one-size-fits-all look, our bodies can not have a one-size-fits-all shape. So why do we continue to teach our kids there is a magic weight number they should reach?

Instead of talking about weight, let's talk about health. Let's step beyond physical health to our kids' mental and emotional well-being. You can't fix obesity by saying "you're fat," any more than you can fix a learning disorder by telling a child "you're dumb." And you can't make the very real possibility of your child developing an eating disorder disappear by treating it with disdain.

NEDA estimates there are 10 million females and 1 million battling anorexia or bulimia. Millions more Americans are struggling with binge eating disorder. That means millions of American kids are at risk.

Want to make childhood obesity go away? Look at your kids as a whole person, from their head to their heart to their tummies. Respect your kids as people first. Provide them with good food choices. Tell them the truth about heart disease and diabetes. Then get up off the couch and go exercise together.

next: The Dad Double Standard
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
dmill February 10, 2010, 6:20 AM

I completely agree with you. Even with the best intentions, things you say become something completely different once it gets inside a kids head. My mom, who I love dearly, talked about her own weight and dieting all my life. I don’t believe she intentionally passed on her poor relationship with food and emotional eating issues on to me, but she did. As I got older, my weight was frequently discussed and even joked about. I truly thought I was huge, but then I look at the pictures taken of me as a child and I was not fat! Those poor eating habits kicked in after college and now with 2 kids and a full-time job I struggle with my weight. I have worked hard to get my kids to be healthy eaters, but my 9-yr old daughter gained some weight while on a medication and now could stand to loose 5 pounds. However, I have never talked to her about it directly and would never discuss it openly. It would mortify her. I have simply discussed healthy eating choices and tried to increase all of our activity levels. I truly believe that telling her she needs to loose weight would do more harm than good.

Fiona Place February 11, 2010, 2:02 PM

Put simply while Michelle Obama is right to bring this up as an issue it is not okay for her girls to be the subject of the debate. Furthermore In the current debate surrounding the obesity epidemic why is it overweight people are often seen as lazy and lacking will power while people with anorexia are seen as suffering from a biological illness. How can this be? Why are fat people lazy and people with anorexia ill? Perhaps it is time to consider the work of author Gary Taubes and his book Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes suggests our high sugar, high carbohydrate diet are to blame - that we are constantly stimulating insulin production and our appetites. He certainly creates a convincing argument. Similarly in her book Cardboard: A woman left for dead Fiona Place argues that anorexia is more to do with an inability to define a sense of self through words that is the issue rather than some biological illness. In the current climate both books have something to offer.

Lea February 12, 2010, 5:59 AM

The First Lady did not go into grave detail about her conversation with the children’s physician or the children. What she’s letting you know is that she is a mom and she can relate. Had she not included a personal piece, the number of folks already complaining about “the government” trying to tell them how to raise their children would be even greater. Mrs. Obama cares about her children and the children on this country. Lighten up. We’ve become so critical that we pick things apart until there’s nothing left, especially when it comes to our new First Family.

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