Maggie Baumann, MA: The New York Times recently ran the article "The Fat Trap" in response to the kickoff of Michelle Obama's childhood obesity campaign, "Let's Move." (In a nutshell, the campaign aims to prevent childhood obesity by reshaping kids' unhealthy eating and exercise habits. It presents action steps that parents, health professionals and the government can take to fight the epidemic.)
In her article, Peggy Orenstein agreed that obesity in kids is an important issue. She cited stats from the Centers for Disease Control, which found that a third of American children are overweight and 17 percent are clinically obese. But she said that, while Michelle Obama has good intentions, her ideas on how to tackle obesity in children may actually have a negative rebound effect on the very kids she's trying to help.
Orenstein surmises that putting too much emphasis on weight loss could, in fact, cause overweight children to use unhealthy and dangerous coping tools to lose the pounds. An increase in eating disorders could occur, triggering symptoms such as calorie-restriction, binging and purging and excessive exercise.
So what's a parent to do? Should parents micromanage their children when it comes to weight issues because the First Lady says to? What happens if (when?) children start obsessing about their bodies and start to feel ashamed because their parents say they're overweight? The First Lady, for example, got permission from her pediatrician (some say unnecessarily) to put her daughters on a diet. And (as Orenstein pointed out) the President backed her up on that. In a 2008 interview, he said, "A couple of years ago -- you'd never know it by looking at her now -- Malia was getting a little chubby."
In the world of eating disorders, words like "chubby" really sting -- and the kids being criticized often don't forget them. Critical remarks like that can negatively impact a child's self-esteem and potentially set the stage for disordered eating. Although no one wants to encourage obesity, we also don't want to encourage eating disorders. Treating and talking about both of these health issues requires a very delicate balance of insight and acceptance.
Michelle's well-intentioned comments about the fight against childhood obesity drew hot response from professionals associated with eating-disorder groups. These specialists strongly cautioned parents, coaches and health professionals not to just put kids on "diets" to solve the problem. Diets and stigmatized labels aren't the answer for helping kids lose excess weight, they said. Instead, adults should promoting mindful eating and exercise -- and shoot for health at every body size.
And now, my take-home message. First off, you should know that I'm in recovery from anorexia. I've raised two girls who are now healthy, college-age students. Although I never intended to, I did hurt my own children with my past (disordered) biases and opinions about food, body size and weight. Although we never had a scale in our home, there was a lot of emphasis of food and calories. By the time my kids were in elementary school, they were pulling items off grocery store shelves and looking to see if the fat content was acceptable to me (a sad statement about my mothering skills at that time).
Today, we as a family strive for healthy eating -- and that includes cookies and ice cream (sometimes). My kids taught me about moderate, healthy exercise. They're not immune to society's pressure to promote thinness, but they're aware that eating disorders are devastating diseases for the whole family. Likewise, they understand that obesity is a dangerous health issue that can cause a host of life-threatening conditions (such as heart disease and diabetes).
As parents, we need to talk respectfully to our children about their bodies, and mentor how to eat and exercise healthfully. We have to walk the talk to show our kids what a healthy lifestyle is. And if one of our children is obese, we need to take proactive measures that don't stigmatize or blame the child for his/her weight. Being loving and compassionate is the first step toward helping kids achieve a healthy balance -- physically and emotionally.
I think that the First Lady's campaign does have this philosophy embedded in its mission. Yet I feel that, in tackling the problem of childhood obesity, we need input from those fighting against eating disorders. I'm pretty sure Peggy Orenstein would back me up on this.