Childhood Obesity: Strong Words From a Mom

Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt

This summer, thanks to a study sponsored by UCLA and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), that troubled state learned that 38% of its children are “significantly overweight.”

Lisen Stromberg, for, approaches this fact by referencing the CCPHA’s roster of California’s legislative successes in the realms of childhood obesity and better nutrition in general, since the millennium started. They include School Food Standards (2001), K-8 Soda Ban (2003), Marketing to Children (2004), High School Soda Ban (2005), School Junk Food Ban (2005), and Statewide Labeling at Chain Restaurants (2008.)

The requirements for physical education in schools have been made more stringent, so kids are doing stuff like running miles in 100-degree heat. The food pyramid has been redesigned.

So… how come so many kids are so fat? Stromberg has a theory:

I am not expert on issues of weight, health, and nutrition. Wait, maybe I am. You see, I’m a mother and that means I am the food and exercise gate-keeper in my family. What I buy, what I cook, how I eat, what I feed my children, what I do for exercise, and what I expect my children to do for exercise makes me the household expert. And it is this very expertise that is being ignored in the conversation about childhood obesity.

In the author’s view, even the word “obese” is almost as offensive as some other words, beginning with N or R or F, are to certain groups in our society. “Overweight” is okay, and even “chubby.” And many ladies prefer to think of themselves as “cuddly.”

The way Stromberg sees it, mothers are not being listened to or heard. When agencies and institutions try to help, even the most well-meaning efforts may be perceived as critical and condescending. Moms are made to feel like failures. They are alienated rather than recruited. The Let’s Move! program aims to quell childhood obesity, but despite being figureheaded by Michelle Obama, it reinforces the paternalistic paradigm — it’s all about control, control, control.

Well, mothers tend to get defensive. What is more, varying degrees of denial come into play. Denial is a subject that Childhood Obesity News has discussed at some length. Sometimes it is blatant and obviously pathological. If a kid weighs 400 pounds and the parents are okay with that, a red flag ought to be hoisted to the top of the pole. But Stromberg tells an anecdote from her own childhood. She was thought to be a bit on the hefty side, but when her mom took her to visit the ancestral land of Norway, their relatives were appalled by the little girl’s thinness and set out to fatten her up.

The received wisdom on which much of Let’s Move! is based is that economic class is a big factor in childhood obesity. But when this premise is explored more deeply, confusion sets in. For starters, women who were raised in poverty see a full cupboard and a heaping plate as primal symbols of good parenting. When the basic value system is disregarded, legislation may be futile.

Stromberg discusses a 2007 article from Sociology of Health and Illness, called “Bodies, Mothers and Identities: Rethinking Obesity and the BMI,” and offers an explanation of how some mothers take a different view:

For these women, being the mother who provides food and sacrifices herself for her family is more important than her own weight. She doesn’t have time to exercise because what little time she does have, she wants to devote to her children. Further, for some women having a large, soft body into which her children can cuddle for comfort and to gain a sense of safety is the physical embodiment of good mothering. To these women, a thin mother is denying her children comfort and, by association, love.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Answer To Childhood Obesity? Mothers,” (Palo Alto, CA), 06/25/12
Image by cliff1066 (cliff).

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