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Maggie doesn’t need a diet or a humiliating billboard

Kate Wicker

Photo by D. Bickel

My 5-month-old boy is wearing 6 to 12 months clothing. This is not a complete shock to me because I’ve had other chunky babies and because I’m well aware that I make more than enough milk. My babies’ rolls have always been a sign of good health to me and nothing to worry about. They’re not chunky because I’m pumping them with sugary juice. They’ve all been exclusively breastfed for at least six months (Mary Elizabeth didn’t enthusiastically include solids on her menu until closer to 10 months).

What has been surprising – and truthfully disheartening – is the difference in how people react to my male chunky monkey. When strangers saw roly-poly Madeline when she was a delicious butterball, they would say things like: “Wow! How much are you feeding her?” or “Well, she’s not petite, is she?” or “I’m sure she’ll thin out eventually.”

I even had one woman in a produce aisle of a grocery store inform me that I might be feeding her a bit too much formula. I politely told her that Madeline was completely breastfed and walked away with my head held high. But on the inside, her comments put a dent in my fragile new mom ego. Maybe I was nursing her too much. Thankfully, I had a great pediatrician who told me she was just perfect and that she couldn’t get too much of a good thing, and mama’s milk is most definitely a good, nutritious thing.

Now when people see Thomas, who is actually bigger than Madeline was at this stage, they say things like, “What a healthy, strong boy!”

Do you see the difference?

Perhaps I’m over-analyzing this too much given my body image history, but it seems to me that even when they’re babies, there’s pressure on girls to be pint-sized cuties. Big boy babies are hearty and future linebackers. Solid baby girls might be eating too much. Raising girls to grow into confident, healthy women no matter their size is no easy task.

And it’s not getting any easier with the onslaught of anti-obesity propaganda popping up. Childhood obesity is a big problem. It needs to be addressed. Sugarcoating things or telling kids that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes may not put an end to childhood obesity, but neither will shaming fat kids.

Dorian Speed recently brought the new anti-obesity campaign in Georgia to my attention. She wrote an excellent post expressing her own mixed feelings about the nature of the campaign.

Since I no longer live in the city, I hadn’t seen the billboards; however, I know of people who have noticed them. There have been some experts who have applauded the campaign for not mollifying such a serious issue. According to Stop Childhood Obesity, 9 million children over the age of 6 are considered clinically obese. Fat kids are more likely to grow up to be fat adults and to suffer from myriad health problems. We owe it to our children to examine this issue and ask ourselves why the younger set is packing on the pounds.

I’m not against helping to put an end to childhood obesity. We don’t need to candy-coat the fact that it’s a serious problem or give an obese child’s cheek a quick pinch and tell her she’ll one day grow out of her baby fat. The campaign’s website is excellent and filled with important information that needs to get out there.

But the images that go with the campaign? They disgust me, especially the one of the little girl. That’s strong language, but that’s exactly what I felt when I saw the campaign’s visuals. I wouldn’t want any of my daughters to see them. I have several friends whose spindly, thin girls are already concerned they’re getting fat. These girls are 7 and 8 years old and are wondering if they need to go on a diet. Did the experts behind the campaign ever stop to consider this? That healthy children might see those posters and fear being fat even more than they already do or think they’re overweight when they’re not.

And what about the children who are heavy? How will they feel seeing these posters and billboards that vilify being overweight? Do you think these kids chose to be obese? Maybe there’s a small percentage of adult hedonists who decide to embrace total gluttony and are saying, “To heck with my body!” But no child chooses to be overweight. Even they wanted to, a child can’t go to the grocery store and pick out more healthy food on her own. They’re at the whim of the adults in their lives. Kids are not naturally fat; the adults who feed them help to make them that way. Maybe we should be singling out the parents instead of the children. How about a billboard showing the typical processed, sugary fare a child eats and saying that this could be slowly killing your child, along with some statistics on the skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes in children? (I actually don’t have as much of a problem with some of the messages in the images pictured here.)

Honestly, I don’t believe we should even resort to aggressive guilt tactics with the parents either. Most parents want their children to be healthy and happy. There are some families where everyone is overweight, and the children should be given the tools they need to escape the fat trap. If a parent thinks Cheese Its are a healthy snack, someone needs to step in and tell them differently.

But I ended on up on the chunky side while the rest of my family were at healthy weights. I had a thin mom. My dad, who has recently worked very hard to lose some of the weight he gained as he grew older, was not overweight when I was younger. My brothers ate virtually the same things I did (except I ate more vegetables and gave up eating meat at a very young age, which really was the beginning of my disordered eating), but they were not overweight. My mom, in retrospect, says she wishes she had known how sad and shameful I felt. My parents didn’t know much about nutrition. This is true. Likewise, my dad grew up in a family where love was served up on huge platters brimming with butter. But there was more to my weight gain than what I was putting into my mouth.

I was a chubby, LITTLE girl, and seeing one of those posters would have cracked my eggshell ego. Shame is not the way to help people choose a more healthful lifestyle. Stigmatizing fat children or fat people in general isn’t going to keep them from reaching for the Doritos. In fact, that sweet girl (pictured here) might already be lugging around a lot more shame than body fat.

Some argue a little bit of shame and guilt are necessary to motivate people to address this serious issue. If this is the case (and I’m clearly not sold on that), then it needs to clearly be directed at the adults.

However, what I don’t like about any propaganda that stigmatize overweight people is that there’s a subterranean message that the extra weight isn’t bad, but the people who carry it around are. We can’t treat people – especially young children who should feel free and full of hope – like convicts. This will only set them up for further forbidden eating.

In fact, I’d wager to say that shame usually isn’t a good motivator for overweight adults either. Virtually anyone who is obese wants to free themselves from carrying around the extra weight and the burden of being overweight; they just don’t know how, or they don’t realize how long it takes to do it the right way.

One of the reasons people continue to eat too much is because there’s a part of them that wants to hide away. “Look at me! I’m fat! Don’t get too close to me.”

In my own experience as being a child who was teased for her weight, I started to eat more because I felt like I could never live up to the ideal standard of beauty that was out there. I had a beautiful, thin mom. I’d never be anything like her, so why even try? I didn’t like my body, but I didn’t like myself more. Poor self-image and low self-esteem feed a child’s desire to eat more. Each new rejection in my life – and seeing one of those posters would have felt like a lot like rejection – sent me to the pantry. So how can shaming obese children possibly help them to escape the despair they’re already feeling? A 6-year-old hopefully can’t turn to drugs or alcohol to help take away her pain and take her away from herself, but she can eat more cake.

I remember from a very young age associating shame with how much I ate. I was once at a friend’s house and felt like I was eating too many chips. My friend was rail-thin, and I was not. I felt so yucky in her presence. You’d think I’d stop eating those chips. Instead, I started eating more because I just felt so pathetic.

That's me at about 12, holding one of my cousins.

When I stumble upon childhood pictures of me like the one above, it makes me sad because what I see now is a child who could have afforded to lose some weight for the sake of her health but also a sweet, funny, sensitive, smart, and creative, little girl. But when I was living that life, I felt like the way I looked defined me. I was bad because I weighed too much. I became skilled at putting up a good front and smiling, but inside I just felt so ashamed. What I needed then was someone to tell me that there was hope, that, yes, maybe I needed to learn to eat more intuitively again, but that I was still a good, beautiful, lovable kid.

If any overweight kids are reading this or anyone overweight period, know this. You are not bad. But some of the foods you’re eating or how much you’re eating might be bad for your health, and you deserve to live a healthy, happy life.

I’m not suggesting every overweight kid has deeper emotional issues, but I’d argue that many do, especially once they do start to fall into that obese category through no fault of their own and start to get teased. However, even if a child is simply eating too much and doesn’t feel ashamed of his or her extra weight, then we need channel our efforts at reaching the parents and educators. A doctor or other trusted professional needs to sit down with the parents (away from the children) and give them the straight facts.

While I am careful to not label food as bad in my house, I also tell my kids that we can’t eat too much sugar not because it will make us fat but because it’s just not the best fuel for our bodies. We need to empower parents to serve real food rather than processed garbage. Even innocuous crackers and bread now have corn syrup in them. So many parents don’t even realize they’re giving their kids junk devoid of any nutritional value to eat.

We all have our own set point weights and natural designs, but young children are naturally more mindful eaters. We screw them up by forcing them to eat by the clock instead of by their stomachs or by telling them to clean their plate or filling our 7-month-old babies with sugary juice we think is healthy.

Before this anti-obesity campaign got me fired up, I’d planned on lambasting a new children’s book called Maggie Goes on a Diet that was written to empower overweight children to slim down. To be fair, I haven’t read the book. I’ve only read about it and also checked its summary and reviews out on Amazon. But I don’t like the book’s premise. Not one bit. The storyline goes something like this: Chunky Maggie is bullied at school. She decides to go on a diet and starts exercising to lose weight. She succeeds and – poof! – her life is instantly better. She becomes the star of the soccer team, scores some major popularity points, and leaves her sad, plump self behind.

It sounds like my biography, but it needs another chapter. This chapter tells the story of a Maggie who discovers that the secret to happiness and affirmation hinges on how thin she is. Eventually she has a bad soccer game. Her friends stop noticing how skinny she is. She feels sad again, so she starts to diet harder. And by diet, I mean she decides to only eat shards of lettuce (hold the dressing, please) and she runs, rain or shine, because she will not get fat again. She will guard her heart from ever getting hurt again. She will make herself disappear before she will be bullied.

And so Maggie lives desperately obsessed with her weight ever after …

Like Georgia’s anti-obesity campaign, this book is approaching this sensitive topic from the wrong angle. First off, childhood obesity is not just a girl’s problem. Don’t young girls already have enough pressure piled on them about how it’s their appearance that makes them popular, powerful even, or the opposite – ignored and worthless? Why did the author choose a girl to star in his weight loss success story? Oh, because there’s even more of a stigma for overweight girls (and perfectly, healthy chubby babies). Beefy boys are strong and will make good football players. Stocky girls are just fat. And since being an overweight girl is so miserable, a fat girl who gets thin makes for a better, more captivating story.

Secondly, I know what it’s like to experience that magical makeover like Maggie did. Although my eating habits could have been better as a young child (though my mom insists I didn’t eat all that much; I ate more in secrret), I also believe I naturally packed on some pounds when I started to prepare for puberty. When I finally blossomed at 15, I naturally thinned out without any dieting (although I had started running). I returned to school, and the same boys who mercilessly teased me for being chunky started asking me out on dates. Nothing other than my external shell had changed.

Case in point: One “nice” guy told me I was a nerd trapped in a hot body. So I was the same nerdy girl, but my new looks somehow made me better. My newfound popularity rooted in my physical appearance sent a very clear message to me: You are more lovable if you’re thinner. You are better if there is less of you.

Maggie’s little tale sends the same message when it should be telling children they are precious and beloved and because of this, they should want to take care of themselves and make the most of the bodies they were given.

Posters showcasing sad, fat children flip the message around. You are miserable because you are fat. You are not good, and life is hard because there is too much of you. But maybe these poor kids are fat because they’re miserable. They’re feeding their sorrow. Maybe they need to be told they are good, lovable, and worthwhile.

Maggie doesn’t need a diet. No child needs a diet. Lifestyle changes? Sure, but not a diet. (The growth of the dieting industry interestingly correlates with increasing obesity rates.)

An overweight girl doesn’t need to be told it’s not easy being a little girl. She already knows that.

What these children need is a lesson in self-love. They need to know that they have the power to make positive changes (with the help of a parent or another understanding adult). These children need grownups in their lives who recognize that their bodies are very, very important – gifts on loan from God. These same adults need to encourage healthy eating and not throw cupcake parties for every stinking holiday.

Above all, these children need to be loved into loving themselves enough to make the necessary changes to live a more healthful, whole life. We won’t bring them to a healthy place by shaming them or sharing fairy tale stories where the fat-turned-skinny-girl locks down the happily ever after. Just because you slim down doesn’t mean you won’t suffer, or your life will be perfect. That fantasy of a skinny idyll kept me compulsively stepping on the scale for years. Our little women, in particular, are already at tremendous risk of sacrificing their true selves in a world where the dignity of women is constantly under attack. Let’s build them up, show them their worth is not a size, remind them that God created woman as the crown of creation, and that they are a crown worth polishing, a crown that deserves nothing less than to shine.

UPDATED: After a friend of mine mentioned reading some articles about the campaign in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I decided to explore around Google. This article, “Fight Obesity, Not the People,” does an excellent job of explaining why these ads might not have their desired effect and may even backfire.

Topics: Health , Parenting

Kate Wicker is a wife, mom, speaker, and author of Weightles: Making Peace with Your Body. When she is not looking for God (and runaway baby socks) in the trenches of motherhood, she writes a health column for Catholic Digest. Visit her website at KateWicker.com.

View all articles by Kate Wicker

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November 29, 2014

Saturday of the Thirty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

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