Motivation: Elusive and Mysterious

As Dr. Pretlow often reminds us, the quality of life experienced by obese kids is about the same as that of kids suffering from cancer and undergoing all kinds of unpleasant treatments. Given that unfortunate similarity, why on earth would kids not be motivated to work toward a healthy weight and enjoy the many benefits of that state? But something like a comparison to cancer patients does not make an impression.

An adult might say, “If you stay on this path it will shorten your life,” and it is easy to understand why kids blow off such warnings. They are simply not wired to be motivated by fear of the future. They don’t have a point of reference and don’t know what to compare it to, in terms of their own short histories.

Mortal dread comes later. But the surprising and incomprehensible thing is, kids don’t even seem to be motivated by the stuff that’s going on now — the whole catalogue of discomforts, embarrassments and victimizations that overweight children and teens are prone to. Somehow, even those traumatic events are not enough to motivate many young people.

Childhood Obesity News recounted the story of Chrisetta Mosley, a survivor of childhood obesity, whose father assured her that she would outgrow her “baby fat.” She recounted:

My childhood is filled with memories of not being able to ride a bike, flattening its training wheels from being over the recommended weight, and avoiding P.E. classes by any means necessary. For years, I wore my fatness like a wounded soldier wears a Purple Heart — with pride. I owned the look. I dressed it up. I worked the room. There wasn’t a skinny girl who intimidated me. I made sure my hair was laid just right. Nails polished. Outfits coordinated to the tee.

Most kids don’t have the life experience to confirm that yes, while food might be enjoyable, there are things much more enjoyable, such as being the boss of one’s own life rather than a slave to compulsion. The unjustly maligned Internet has a lot to answer for, but in one way it offers a precious gift. Kids can find testimonials from others who used to be in their shoes, or rather their extra-large t-shirts. A young man who lost 20 pounds when he was 16 (by preparing his own food, and working out) told a reporter (in an article that wasn’t archived):

I felt like I had purpose. When I moved, I felt like I could move faster, and I felt more comfortable in my own skin. And people would say, “Caleb, you look slimmer,” and it felt good for people to notice.

This guy benefited when others recognized and commented on his efforts. But people, including teenagers, have different personalities. For another young person, to have someone say, “You look slimmer” might be disturbing or even triggering in the worst way. The reaction might be, “Why are you looking at my body?” A fit physique attracts a lot of eyeballs. For some people, the feeling of being examined and judged is repugnant, even if the judgment is favorable.

There are people who will do anything to avoid being looked at, including put on extra weight. It is important not to go to far, because a grossly fat body will draw as many lingering stares as a fantastic figure. In the nice middle range of unremarkable plumpness, however, the onlooker’s eyes registers only the briefest glance — “too big” — and then moves on. This is the most comfortable place for people with underlying emotional problems. They can often lose weight temporarily, but a psychic malaise kicks in, and they go back to the old ways that accommodated their unresolved issues.

Add youth to this, and take a moment to empathize and sympathize. Often, to be young is to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. On the one hand, stuff that grown people tell you often has an agenda, or the way they say it stinks — like a warning, or like they can’t wait for you to mess up so they can say, “I told you so.” But then on the other hand, you’re like, “How am I supposed to know what to do?” or “How come nobody ever told me about…?” And then the grownups go, “We tried to tell you, but you didn’t listen!”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “In between, the past,”, 11/16/14
Source: “‘I don’t want to be defined by this’,”, 09/24/11
Image by: Incase

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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