It’s very tempting to blame parents, and especially mothers, for the childhood obesity epidemic. This is nearly inevitable because, as Lisen Stromberg admits, the mom is usually the “food and exercise gate-keeper” of the family. In most households, the mother is the closest thing there is to an expert, but despite that fact, she feels that moms have been ignored in the national conversation about childhood obesity.
Before elaborating on this thought, Stromberg acknowledges the many victories that have been achieved in her state, California, as documented by the Public Health Advocacy webpage on legislative successes. Public school meals have been improved, and the labeling on restaurant items is better. Soft drinks have been officially banned from schools.
Nevertheless, the writer feels that political action in this area has not focused on determining the attitudes and ideas of mothers, whose cooperation is needed as much as that of the schools. As she phrases it:
In all of these well-intentioned endeavors, no one has gone to the source, the mothers themselves, to ask, ‘what does obesity mean to you?’ and ‘how can we help you to ensure your children are as healthy as they can be?’.
Cultural norms make a huge difference. When a family comes from either a country or a personal background of scarcity and deprivation, mothers want to see their kids looking filled out and pleasingly plump. They have left behind the world of skinny children with visible rib cages. Perhaps even more impactful is the reaction of relatives and friends. If the in-laws think a child is too thin, it’s important to satisfy their need for grandchildren who don’t look undernourished.
The American abundance of cheap food can be overwhelming, especially the ready availability of essentially zero-nutrition snacks and over-processed instant meals. But the emotional component of food, and, by extension, the importance of looking well fed, is the aspect Stomberg is particularly tuned in to, saying:
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… Many of the women in the report who were obese, did not view themselves as such. They called themselves ‘chubby’, ‘cuddly’, and ‘overweight’. It is likely they might not recognize or want to define their children as obese either.
In other words, many women who are objectively considered overweight by our society just don’t see themselves that way. Consequently, if their children resemble them, they don’t see the kids as overweight either. Also, even if the association is subconscious, a mother can think of herself as a kind of living furniture whose tactile effect far outweighs the visual picture. The children she holds know they are loved and protected, and that is the important thing. A lap that feels comfortable to children is far more important than a figure that looks great to the rest of the world.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!