Childhood Obesity Turning Points and ‘Loser’ Stories

Loading pallets

Thanks to the magic of Reddit, a website where anybody is welcome to contribute their experiences about anything, research can dig up a trove of information about some very personal issues. For instance, what moves a child or a young teen on the obesity train to pull the emergency brake cord and take control?

While in middle school, one young Reddit commenter with the handle Tons o’Fun got tired of the ridicule at the same time health class was covering the subject of how obesity can shorten a person’s life. Those two things together caused a change of direction. A chubby girl, who came to the conclusion that boys only wanted tiny females, wrote, “I pretty much had a different self esteem problem for every pound I wanted to lose,” and lost them she did.

Another teen, probably a bit older and more introspective, realized the hypocrisy of being attracted to, and expecting to date, a normal-weight person “when I was the opposite.” Even though they are technically not children, stories from former obese kids in their late teens and early 20s can shed a lot of light on the psychology and logistics of turning a life around. For a 21-year-old who had been fat for 10 years, it took a mother’s death from cancer to inspire the forging of a new path:

I thought about how horrible the food I was eating was and the long term effects it could be having on my body. I guess I just had a realization that this is the only life I get and I don’t want to spend it being unhappy, or have it end early because I didn’t take care of myself. I had to start taking responsibility for myself.

One “loser” story came from a male whose parents were both in the 350- to 400-pound range. At age 17 and 5’9”, he weighed 200 pounds and had some minor health issues that gave him enough of an excuse not to work out. Two years later, he was up to 240 pounds, and life presented him with the weirdest motivation ever.

His father stole an entire pallet of protein bars and designed a weight loss program around them, eventually dropping 100 pounds. Perhaps inspiration isn’t the right word, but the son took this as a sort of grudging challenge, which stimulated him to respond, “If he can do it, then I can too” — that is, lose weight, not steal 1,250 pounds of protein bars.

The young man switched from soft drinks to water, cut back on the fast food, stopped stuffing himself at every meal, and showed up for at least three gym workouts per week. At age 21 he was down to 185 pounds, but then needed surgery that left him inactive for two months. Meanwhile, the father was finally fired for stealing and, while unemployed, ate his way back up to 350+ pounds. This prophetic vision of a future self the son definitely did not want to be renewed his determination to get back to the gym as soon as medically possible.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Fat People Stories,” Reddit.com
Image by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet

Fat Logic 101

trilogy1

Some feel that scientific obesity research is fueled and funded by fat hatred, and that its methodology is flawed. Traditional obesity research is accused of prejudice, misinformation, and a complete absence of “fat stakeholders” in its hallowed halls. The entire enterprise is seen as an attempt to isolate obese people as “some kind of Othered subhuman lump of helplessness.” In this paradigm, the good guys are those who hold a “more sophisticated” view, and add Fat Studies to the curriculum, and originate such slogans as “Health At Every Size.”

Science writer David Berreby took the trouble to trace the origin of the word “infectobesity.” It was coined by Prof. Nikhil Dhurandhar, who in 1992 observed that, instead of being skinny like sick animals ought to be, chickens that succumbed to adenovirus were fat.

But these folks don’t even like the terms “obesogenic” and “infectobesity” because the words brand fatness as pathological, and not as a perfectly acceptable and harmless aspect of humanity as a whole. The notion of infectiousness is especially repellent to Fat Acceptance enthusiasts because, while it might provide a legitimate reason for being overweight, and thus relieve some societal stress, the stigma of contagion would provide a very powerful rationale for excluding and marginalizing the obese.

We’re diverse too!

If biodiversity is such a good thing, and if cultural diversity is such a good thing, then why does everybody pick on fat people? Why do the lean people have a knee-jerk belief that carrying a bit of extra weight is an automatic guarantee of morbid illness? Obesity needs to be understood from historical, economic, psychological, and chemical angles, plus about 99 more.

The very enthusiastic proponents of Fat Logic compare the effort to end the obesity epidemic to the lunacy of past tyrants who promoted social engineering through eugenics. And they, too, make up words, such as:

Obesogreed
A term which refers to the insatiable desire to cash in on fat hatred through spurious scientific claims. Describes weight loss companies that fund research producing and endorsing obesity charities.

Emotional fat logic

Fat logic is available in many varieties, all faulty. From Reddit, a precious repository of first-person narratives, comes a beautiful example of fallacious reasoning. When this former obese child was in grade school, most of the thin students and teachers were unkind. So her inner food addict took that information and ran with it, and mapped out a justification for years of overeating that went something like this: “Thin people are mean. I want to be a nice person, so I’d better not be thin. In fact, the fatter, the nicer.”

The same woman also says that some obese people are actually angry when normal-weight peers are nice to them. Why? Because it knocks down the theory that everyone must choose “between being a good person and having a good appearance.” Objecting to friendly treatment is an extreme reaction, and hopefully it’s only projection on the part of this particular woman. The important point here is that childhood obesity isn’t something that just goes away, even when it does.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Infectobesity, Obesogenic, dying research traditions and made-up words,” ObesityTimeBomb.blogspot.com, 09/21/10
Source: “The obesity era,” Aeonmagazine.com, 06/19/13
Image by “Fat Amy” (Anonymous)

Can Children Catch Obesity From Their Friends?

Chicken and egg

As Childhood Obesity News noted yesterday, where adults and teenagers are concerned, obesity does appear to be a transmissible disease. Children of course can’t help being exposed to it in their earliest nurturing environments. Even if the grownups in their support system are fortunate enough to have escaped the most telling outward signs (and don’t weigh 300 pounds), obesogenic habits and beliefs are sadly apt to be “caught.” Kids don’t know any better and have no other home or lifestyle to compare things to. They tend to accept and imitate.

But once they’re out in the world, other forces come into play, and researchers are very interested in the chicken-or-egg question. In the most simplistic scenario, two major things are going on. There is social influence, which means that friends influence each other’s behavior. Then there is homophily, which can be summed up by another avian metaphor, “Birds of a feather flock together.” With homophily, there is an element of choice, whether conscious or unconscious, based on a feeling that, for instance, kids who like heavy metal music belong together.

Among teenage girls, another kind of friendship choice might be exercised, as a deliberate strategy. A pretty girl might pick a plain girl as her best friend, because the contrast enhances her own attractiveness. Or a slim girl might pal around with a heavier girl, because in comparison she looks even thinner. But this is an aberration that probably has little to do with the spread of obesity.

The influence of a social network can have either a positive or a negative effect on a person’s weight at any age. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study titled “The Distribution of Physical Activity in an Afterschool Friendship Network.” Vanderbilt University scientists looked at data from a 12-week after-school program in which the 81 subjects varied in age from 5 to 12. They wondered how much a child’s network of friends can influence weight, and specifically, physical activity patterns. Their conclusion was that interventions in social networks could potentially lead to meaningful changes in a child’s level of activity. The opinion was based on this information:

The strongest influence on the amount of time children spent in moderate to vigorous activity in the after-school programs was the activity level of their immediate friends. Children were six times more likely to adjust to their friends’ activity levels than not, but children did not make or break friendships based on physical activity.

A more recent study was a collaboration between Colorado State University and the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research in California. They used data from the Pathways to Health, a school-based intervention program whose focus is on obesity prevention. Pathways borrows heavily from programs designed to prevent substance abuse; since drugs and hyperpalatable foods both activate the brain’s reward circuits, the connection with classical addiction is obvious.

Pathways to Health is an evidence-based program that deals with such areas as impulse control, emotional control, planning and organization, working memory, and other skills that come under the heading of executive cognitive function (ECF). In the area of food, these skills are amenable to modification:

Inhibitory control may allow an individual to inhibit food-related thoughts and behaviors within an environment or situation filled with cues for (over-)
consumption of snack foods. Emotional control may allow an individual to cognitively manage strong affect and behavioral impulses.

But when it comes to breaking sedentary behavior patterns such as excessive computer gaming, the literature says, “It may take considerable cognitive effort to inhibit these unhealthy behaviors.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Social Networks Influence Obesity,” PsychCentral.com, 07/12/12
Source: “The Role of Social Networks in Pediatric Obesity,” AAP.org, 5/28/2012
Source: “Childhood eating habits influenced by peers,” Healio.com, 03/25/14
Source: “Translating evidence based violence and drug use prevention to obesity prevention: development and construction of the Pathways program,” OxfordJournals.org, 03/13/12
Image by Mark Turnauckas

Can Adults and Teens Catch Obesity?

Ketchup and Mustard

In 2007, researchers utilized data from the Framingham Heart Study to learn about the spread of obesity in both voluntary and involuntary social networks. The available information covered more than 12,000 people and was collected over a time span of more than 30 years. The researchers wanted to know whether a person’s weight gain was associated with weight gain on the part of others with whom the person had either selective social ties (friends and spouses) or nonselective ties (siblings and neighbors). The study found that:

A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%. If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%.

Siblings share genetic material and familial indoctrination. Those unavoidable influences are much stronger and of a quite different nature than relationships created and shared with voluntary contacts like friends and spouses, so it should come as no surprise that siblings resemble each other. Conversely, the other type of nonselective tie, consisting of only the geographical coincidence of being neighbors, seemed to have no effect one way or the other. The researchers also found that women’s obesity patterns are more influenced by female associates, and the proclivities of men are more influenced by other males.

Danger: Restaurant Ahead

The book A Big Fat Crisis by Deborah Cohen, M.D., contains fascinating information about why people overeat even when they know better. For instance, if someone is offered a second helping of same-shaped pasta with sauce, they might give it a pass. But if the second serving, identical in amount and with the same sauce, is made up of differently shaped pasta, the person is likely to eat it.

The most insidious thing is the multiplier effect, a hazard when people eat away from home. According to Cohen, the presence of one extra person at a shared restaurant meal will cause everyone at the table to eat 33% more, and when a group gets up to seven or more convivial diners, everybody eats nearly twice as much as they otherwise would have. Contagious overeating is right next door to contagious obesity.

The young

Now, what about the obesity-related mutual influence exerted by teenagers? PsychCentral senior news editor Rich Nauert wrote up an informal interpretation of a Loyola University study that scrutinized friendship circles among high school students.

Thanks to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, data were collected in 1994 and 1995 from two large high schools. David Shoham, Ph.D., lead author of the study, issued several caveats. Any research that depends on self-reporting is susceptible to bias. Also, studies of social networks are observational, quite different from lab experiments where animals are fed calibrated calories followed by blood tests to assess results.

Researchers interested in cause and effect are working with approximations, not hard facts. Perhaps the most limiting factor in this particular study was that data collection took place before the childhood obesity epidemic really hit, and before Facebook and other online social networks were phenomena to be reckoned with. The Loyola team found that social influence “tends to operate more in detrimental directions,” and this is especially true relative to body mass index:

Students were more likely to gain weight if they had friends who were heavier than they were. Conversely, students were more likely to get trimmer — or gain weight at a slower pace — if their friends were leaner than they were.

If a borderline overweight kid — one who could go either way — pals around with leaner friends, there would be a 40% chance of losing weight, and only a 27% chance of gaining. If a borderline teenager hangs out with obese friends, there would only be a 15% chance of losing weight and a whopping 56% chance of gaining. The researchers arrived at the useful conclusion that treating an obese adolescent is likely to be more successful in a group setting rather than in isolation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years,” NEJM.org, 07/26/07
Source: “Why gov’t should regulate food like tobacco & alcohol,” NYPost.com, 12/28/13
Source: “Social Networks Influence Obesity,” PsychCentral.com, 07/12/12
Image by bigbirdz

Is Childhood Obesity Contagious?

Organs

Can a child contract obesity like the flu or tuberculosis, through proximity to someone who has it? “The etiology of obesity is multifactorial,” said a study from the Università del Piemonte Orientale in Italy, quoted in a previous Childhood Obesity News post. As science marches on, it begins to look as if obesity might have many contributing causes. The maverick German food chemist Udo Pollmer has claimed there are more than 100, though the list has proven to be Internet-elusive. But just as a thought experiment, what if there were 100 possibilities? Even if each one of them only caused 1% of obesity cases, the cumulative effect would wreak plenty of havoc.

The energy-balance formula of calories-in/calories-out is well established and has ostensibly been proven by millions of people who limit their food intake and are able to work out. It’s a difficult theory to shake. But what if, as Dr. Richard L. Atkinson of Virginia Commonwealth University believes, adenovirus-36 has something to do with obesity? The flab creeps up slowly, but the fat cells of infected lab animals grow larger and more numerous.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer of the University of California, San Diego, is an expert in fatty liver disease in children and also studies obese children’s quality of life. A team he led did research on adenovirus-36, finding evidence of it in 1 out of every 7 kids in their study, and most of the kids who tested positive were in fact obese. We’re talking about an average weight difference of 50 pounds over the uninfected children. Also, David Berreby reports:

A research review by Tomohide Yamada and colleagues at the University of Tokyo in Japan, published last year in the journal PLoS One, found that people who had been infected with Ad-36 had significantly higher BMI than those who hadn’t.

A virus is not the only critter that has been accused of causing obesity. Inside a person’s body, there are 10 bacteria for every single human cell. Some are beneficial, some are harmful, and most of them, nobody knows what the heck they’re doing. Normal-weight and obese people have different kinds of gut bacteria, and we know very little about that disparity. Scripps Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Franklin Tsai wrote:

Metagenomic studies demonstrated that certain mixes of gut microbiota may protect or predispose the host to obesity. Furthermore, microbiota transplantation studies in germ-free murine models showed that the efficient energy extraction traits of obese-type gut flora are transmissible.

Berreby notes that human testing found more of the bacterium Methanobrevibacter smithii in overweight people than in thin ones. The little bugs seem to be unusually adept in sucking the nutrients out of food. (Maybe this could help people in parts of the world where there isn’t enough to eat.)

If gut bacteria from a fat mouse are transported to the intestine of a thin mouse, the thin mouse gets fat. That’s “infectobesity,” and the same experiment would not be allowed with humans. But one of the arguments for the existence of contagious fat is that it seems to have spread from the east to the west coast of America in a pattern familiar to epidemiologists. Many health care professionals feel that “infectobesity” is a dangerous concept that might tempt people to abdicate all personal responsibility and accountability. On the other hand, if some people really and truly cannot help being fat, the world is unnecessarily cruel to them.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Jeffrey Schwimmer, M.D.,” UCSD.edu
Source: “The microbiome and obesity: is obesity linked to our gut flora?” NIH.gov, August 2009
Source: “David Berreby rejects the diet+exercise model of obesity epidemic causation,”
Aeonmagazine.com, 06/19/14
Image by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

A Young Addict’s Story

Maze Puzzle

In an earlier post, Childhood Obesity News looked at the stages for adopting positive change, as explained by New York Times guest blogger A.D.A.M. This is probably the most important precept to keep in mind:

The decision to adopt a healthier behavior — whether it’s more exercise, weight loss, or quitting smoking — is not as simple as just deciding to do it. Behavior change expert James Prochaska and his colleagues outlined a theory, which has been supported by numerous studies, showing that people cycle through a variety of stages before a new behavior is successfully adopted over the long term.

Often this process is not a path but a maze, raggedly uneven and excruciatingly slow, with enough steps and stages to fill up a whole book. Comedian Moshe Kasher was a chubby kid in elementary school and even in middle school, but that wasn’t the main problem. The serious issue was multi-drug abuse. But often the substance chosen simply depends on availability, and food is everywhere. The underlying causes are the same for all addictive behaviors, and when it’s time to quit, the “two steps forward, one step back” pattern is all too familiar.

When a young person decides to escape food addiction, the struggle can be as monumental as if he or she were hooked on a hard drug. This is because hedonic, “more-ish” pseudo-foods are engineered to be addictive. Dr. Pretlow polled the kids who communicate with his Weigh2Rock website and discovered that although none of the biggest problem foods are essential for life, children are drawn to them for the same reason older kids and adults are drawn to alcohol and drugs. He says:

These substances perform as an anesthetic, a painkiller, to soothe feelings of stress, depression, and boredom. Eating comforts the wounded spirit with the worst kind of false comfort, the kind that does more harm. Kids even hate themselves for comfort eating, but cravings overcome them.

Now, hear what Moshe Kasher says:

It’s that feeling — the numbing bliss of self-medication — that makes people become drug addicts. It’s not the getting high that makes you an addict, it’s what the getting high does for you. If you start low and you get high, you make it up to normal for the first time…. It wasn’t the high, it was the feeling that I was all right.

Kasher makes a point that is applicable to any addictive substance — “If it’s the first thing that’s ever felt good in your life, you’re in trouble.” For a lot of kids, that first thing is sugar. They start getting it in baby formula before they’re old enough to have any knowledge or choice.

One kid’s meandering path

In his early teens, Kasher was enrolled against his will in a couple different programs modeled on the 12-step paradigm, and either resisted obnoxiously or participated insincerely. At one point he told his mother that the “amends” step would require paying back some people he had ripped off. She gave him money, and he bought more drugs.

There was a stage of weariness with failing at life in general, and a self-deceptive belief that things would get better on their own. There was a stage of believing that he could quit if he chose to. Eventually, he came up against the wall that all addicts eventually hit — the point where no amount of dope can to do the job. The door to relief had closed, and like all addicts he felt the pain of betrayal that comes from being abandoned by the last and only true friend.

He made the landmark decision to quit, which was quickly followed by the realization that he couldn’t. “The moment you need control,” he learned, “is the moment you realize you’ve lost it.” Then came a stage that will be familiar from our previous post. Kasher writes:

Every night I’d swear I’d never do it again…. Every night I quit. And every morning I woke up and forgot about the promises I’d made to myself the night before…. There was simply an empty space in my brain where the night before there had been a firm declaration never to do this again.

He specifies that it wasn’t a moral struggle or a wrestling match with his conscience. It was just that the resolution formed the night before had dissolved and vanished by morning. This seems to be an important factor to take into account if any quitting program is to work. Kasher had blown three rehab attempts when finally the thing happened that is the most difficult for any former addict to articulate: “Why that day was different, I don’t know. There comes a time. The pain of existence transcends the fear of change. There comes a time.”

Finally, the 12-step program worked because he worked it. By age 15, this severely troubled youth was in recovery and has been substance-free ever since.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Motivation,” NYTimes.com, 03/11/14
Source: “Kasher in the Rye,” Amazon.com, 2012
Image by FutUndBeidl

All Addiction Is the Same

Tragedy and Comedy

For standup comic and TV personality Paul Gilmartin, the problem was alcohol, but as we know, addiction is the same phenomenon across the board, and the substance is almost incidental. His other problem was that he had no problems, a paradox he explained as a guest of Aisha Tyler’s “Girl on Guy” podcast.

Despite success in the entertainment industry, in his mid-30s Gilmartin was diagnosed with clinical depression. He dealt with it by extensively self-medicating with liquor, which included such side effects as dangerously irresponsible drunk driving. Treating freeway journeys like challenges in a video game was only one of the ways in which he manifested his disconnection from other humans.

He had a great marriage, a great career, great income, a lot of validation from the world, and the pleasure of seeing his own face on a Sunset Boulevard billboard (his personal definition of “making it”). The fact that there was, ostensibly, no reason or excuse for his depression only made it more debilitating. This successful and wealthy man would find himself crying for no reason, and suicidal thoughts visited him daily. There was an embarrassing incident one night when he was drinking in a bar and begged someone he had only known for an hour, “Please don’t go, I’m so lonely.”

His wife would “gently and occasionally” suggest that something was wrong. Eventually, she said, “I’m only going to tell you this once, but I think you have a drinking problem.” Agreeing that he needed therapy, he visited a psychiatrist, who told Gilmartin he couldn’t treat him until he quit drinking. Again he agreed, and says:

I could feel something in me breaking…. Every night my mind would come up with a reason why tonight was going to be the last night I was going to get loaded.

Getting sober at 40

Gilmartin tells of being unable to quit drinking until one morning that seemed at first like any other morning. Waking up, he immediately chastised himself for lazily sleeping too late while the world passed him by. Thinking of all the things he had to accomplish that day, he felt his stomach tighten into a familiar knot. He was struck by the chilling realization that getting drunk was the only thing he looked forward to: “I just said out loud, ‘God help me. I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

That same day he entered a 12-step program. He says:

The first time I went to that support group, I knew I was at a fork in the road. I was going to kill myself, or I was going to throw my lot in with this new thing. I decided to treat it like a science experiment and say, ‘I’m going to throw my lot in,’ and then look at the results and decide whether or not to go back to my old way.

That is a very important concept for anyone who contemplates either delaying suicide or reaching for sobriety. If you put off killing yourself, you can always do it later. If you try going straight and it doesn’t work out, you can always return to addiction. These ideas may sound horrifying to a healthy person, but they are what someone in this position needs to cling to. Keeping the options open is a perverse but comforting insurance policy.

Like many others who decide to unhook from their substance of choice — be it alcohol or junk food or heroin — Gilmartin imagined a grim and joyless future of “white-knuckling it,” just trudging through an endless succession of gray and pointless days. Much to his astonishment, quitting alcohol made him feel infinitely better. He says, “The desire to get loaded went away maybe a month or two into sobriety, and it’s never returned.”

When this interview was recorded, Gilmartin had not had a drink for 10 years. Of course, psychotherapy helped too — delving into the issues created by an uninvolved, alcoholic father and a pathologically overinvolved mother. He also notes that he treats his addiction by a commitment to serve others, including the production of his own podcast, “The Mental Illness Happy Hour.” He gives enormous credit to his wife, and this too is a hint worthy of special attention:

She couldn’t have handled it any better. Because I think if she had hounded me, I might have kept drinking out of resentment…. Eventually, I knew I had a problem. I didn’t go [into treatment] for her, I went because I knew that was the truth. Something in my life was wrong.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Girl on Guy #129,” Girlonguy.Libsyn.com, 03/04/14
Image by Tim Green

Revenge of the Obese Inner Child

Mother and Daughter (cartoon)

Like many professional comedians, Marc Maron might be called an equal-opportunity offender. The laugh is more important than anybody’s feelings. When accused of insensitivity by a fan, Maron first reflected on how, culturally, “there seems to be a license to make fun of the obese.” But then, he says, he “had to track it down in my own heart.”

Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News considered how people who engage in fat-shaming are probably coming from a place of fear. Whether or not they ever articulate it to themselves, at the sight of a seriously overweight stranger, they experience a deeply ingrained terror, a gut-level reaction that translates as “That could happen to me.” Maron, on his WTF podcast, confirms this.

‘I have an obese inner child’

A former “chunky kid” himself, the comic was brought up by a mother who had been obese in her childhood. She reacted by developing anorexia, and later on, he theorizes, the daily presence of a chubby son triggered her fears of returning to an obese condition. When she looked at him, he felt that she saw not a young human being but her own lost fat cells that had somehow reassembled themselves into a blob with legs and come back to haunt her.

It seemed like all the family conversation centered around eating too much, or not eating, and young Marc was reading diet books and counting calories at the age of 8. At the dinner table, one of his mother’s favorite sayings was “Do you really need that?” Many experts believe that home-cooked meals, enjoyed by parents and children together, are vital to the prevention of childhood obesity. The operative word there is “enjoy.” Surely no one would recommend constant nagging or verbal abuse as seasoning for any meal.

Today, despite his fit physique, Maron says he still feels like a fat person and, because of it, experiences a certain amount of self-contempt. Of his mom, he says:

Her biggest fear in the world was being fat…. If an obese person or a fat person was walking by, she would grab my hand hard and go, ‘Oh my God, look at that.’ 

Toxic thoughts

I also knew a woman who would invariably spot and make rude remarks about morbidly obese people, to the point where her rampant fat-phobia became a joke among her friends. When anyone asked how her daughter was doing, she would inevitably ignore every other aspect of health and life, and report on the number of fat rolls currently encircling the child’s waist.

Some fear that children’s early experiences of school can be damaged by the preference of teachers for thinner children. While there is the occasional verified report of weight bias from an elementary teacher, the problem does not appear to be widespread — or at least not in Great Britain. The brief notes on research conducted there last year read:

The aim of this study was to investigate whether teachers’ judgements of pupils’ ability are influenced by the body shape of the child…. There is little evidence that teachers’ judgements of pupils’ ability are influenced by obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Episode 59 – Robert Hawkins/Ryan Singer,” WTFpod.Libsyn.com, 03/29/10
Source: “Are teachers’ judgments of pupils’ ability influenced by obesity?” Nature.com, 11/15/13
Image by Miss Maisy

The Many Faces of Fat-Shaming

DisneylandYesterday, Childhood Obesity News looked at the public outcry and media flurry that resulted from public service billboards in Tel Aviv, Israel, that were characterized by many as “fat-shaming.”

Jewish Journal blogger Julie Bien offered a personal perspective on weight bias, recalling an incident when, at the age of 6, she was taken clothes-shopping by her grandmother. The little girl tried on a dress that she loved and modeled it for her grandmother, who said, “You’re too fat for that dress.” Bien writes:

The feeling of hot, red-faced shame that was brought on in the moment is still tangible. And guess what? Being fat-shamed as a child didn’t motivate me to do anything other than want to disappear.

A little further along in her childhood, at age 9, Bien lost a lot of weight while suffering from a medical problem that made her too sick to eat. When neighbors praised her for being slimmer, she took note: “The lesson I came away with? Better to be sick and thin, than healthy and chubby.”

That is definitely not a lesson we want any children to absorb, ever. A healthy, normal weight is the desired state for all kids everywhere, always. But opinionated people continue to voice their thoughts about the size of other people, sometimes with surprising and even counterintuitive results. A writer named Grace Murano did a lot of research to bring her public an article called “8 People Who Were Shamed into Losing Weight.”

The roundup features no children, but one teenager’s story is presented, that of William Cookson, who weighed 300 pounds. His fondness for fish and chips, chocolate, and junk food had given the Liverpool youth a 48-inch waistline. At age 17 he had never kissed a girl and was mercilessly teased by schoolmates. After losing 126 pounds, he amazed everyone by resembling the singer Justin Bieber, and his life changed immensely for the better. How did he do it? Murano writes:

William, who is completing his A-Levels at Liverpool Community College, enlisted the help of his uncle, who is a personal trainer, to help him lose the weight. He embarked on a strict gym regimen, cut out all snacks, and stuck to three balanced meals a day.

The next youngest subject was another 300-pounder, a woman of 22 who suffered extreme embarrassment when, in the presence of a new boyfriend, she sat on a wooden garden bench that disintegrated beneath her weight. Alexandra Collings was inspired by this incident to immediately join a weight-loss group. But this story has a twist. The young man actively sabotaged her efforts to achieve a healthier weight. So she dumped him, lost 140 pounds, and found a new boyfriend.

The other profiles in Murano’s article include a man who got stuck in an amusement park ride, a woman who got stuck in a bathtub, and a man who grew tired of getting dirty looks from other bus passengers when he took up two seats. The tales are all very entertaining, but they are not the kinds of stories we ever want to see our children featured in.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Israel pulls ‘fat-shaming’ childhood obesity awareness ads,” JewishJournal.com, 01/09/14
Source: “8 People Who Were Shamed into Losing Weight,” Oddee.com, 10/02/13
Image by Tor Lindstrand

Israel’s Fat-Shaming Controversy

Israeli billboardsWhile Childhood Obesity News is on the subject of fat-shaming, Israel really stepped in it early this year. Actually, very few Israelis had anything to do with the appearance of various large billboards in Tel Aviv, some of which are shown on this page.

The unhappy-face torso says, “Most cases of depression among children are tied to their appearance. Parents! Help your children be happy.” The distorted boy-face is captioned, “When your child gets fat, his smile shrinks.” The seesaw picture claims that “1 out of 4 children in Israel suffers from obesity,” which seems to be an exaggeration.

Israel’s official statistic for overweight kids is 17%, and although that is serious enough to give the country the fifth-highest childhood obesity rate, people definitely did not want to be reminded of it in this manner. Dr. Itay Gal delved more deeply into the subliminal impressions left on the viewers’ psyche, noting that the appearance of the letter L is code for “loser.”

Who did it?

The billboards were the work of several advertising agencies, subsidized by the Parisian firm JCDecaux. The world-famous company gives smaller agencies a leg up by offering them the opportunity, along with complete freedom of expression, to produce socially relevant ad campaigns. In previous years, the chosen issues were pet adoption, road safety, and good environmental stewardship.

This year they took on childhood obesity, a subject guaranteed to polarize opinion. The public service artwork caused an uproar reminiscent of the outrage voiced in the U.S. back in 2011 when Georgia put up obesity awareness billboards.

Social media went nuts. Critics said the billboards depicted overweight kids as “unhappy outcasts” and called the messages insulting, lacking in compassion, cynical, offensive, cruel, repulsive, degrading, and even criminal. A citizen named Roni Gelbfish posted on Facebook, “Generations of psychologists won’t be able to heal the damage done by the new campaign against obese children.”

Dr. Yitzhak Kadman (or Isaac Cadman, depending on the publication’s level of Anglophilia) serves as chairperson for Israel’s National Council for the Child. In a letter to the Commissioner of Consumer Protection, he wrote:

Consumer protection regulations include a series of restrictions on advertising, among them a regulation requiring ads to avoid situations in which minors may be pushed to do things that can badly effect [sic] their health or wellbeing…. The dangerous ad campaign unnecessarily harms obese children and may lead them to commit serious acts, make them a mockery in the eyes of their friends and induce their harassment.

When a scandal like this happens, someone always brings up the Australian billboards that depict victims of skin cancer, with the object of warning people to wear sunscreen and hats. The models for those advertisements, and others who suffer from skin cancer, allegedly do not feel shamed. But those are grownups. When attempts are made to caution kids by the same method, neither the circumstances nor the results are the same.

On January 9, Israel’s media exploded with the news that the huge graphics would be removed. A spokesperson for JCDecaux said the firm regretted the feelings experienced by some members of the public and that the purpose was never to discomfit or ridicule anyone. The company also announced that in the process of taking down the anti-obesity billboards, they would install new ones with the message, “Now that the ads are down, it’s in your hands.”

Readers: Did this campaign represent a call for awareness, or plain old fat-shaming?

Source: “Anti-obesity ads stir controversy,” ynetnews.com, 01/09/14
Source: “Does Billboard Ad Campaign Targeting Childhood Obesity Go Too Far?,” TheBlaze.com, 01/09/14
Image by YNET News and TheBlaze.com

Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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