San Jose State University
Last week, an article entitled, “My Daughter is Fat, Isn’t it My Job to tell Her?” showed up several times in my various social media feeds. The piece, written by Kasey Edwards, an Australian body image expert, takes on the notion that we parents of fat children are obligated to tell our children that they are fat and to help them lose weight. Edwards gives three main reasons why she does not recommend parents tell children they are fat. First, the obvious- fat kids already know they are fat. As Edwards points out, everyone from family, to teachers, to doctors, first ladies, media, and random strangers make sure that fat kids are reminded early and often of their fatness. Indeed, I wrote elsewhere about one particularly cruel fat-shaming encounter my daughter and I experienced at the hands of a random restaurant patron. Second, Edwards cites well-known and widely available data on the failure rates of diets and evidence showing that a focus on weight often results in weight gain, not weight loss. Finally, Edwards claims that, a focus on weight in children puts them at risk of eating disorders and damages self-esteem. Edwards concludes by advising parents to support their children’s health and wellbeing with unconditional love, and weight-neutral encouragement and facilitation of healthy eating and physical activity.
The article resonated with me given my long-standing commitment to taking a Health at Every Size® approach to my own and my childrens’ health. It also made sense to me given my expertise as a fat studies scholar and size-acceptance activist. Yet, I was troubled that on those same social media feeds, alongside articles like Edwards’, I regularly see articles reporting on new or proposed state and local educational policies designed to be make sure that all students who meet the metrics to be labeled as “fat”- from elite private college students to poor kids of color in struggling schools- become aware that they are fat and therefore “unhealthy.” In the face of evidence that diets don’t work and that fat-shaming does often- irreparable harm, why do we keep insisting that the way to make people healthier is to reduce their health to a body mass index (BMI) statistic- a number that tells us nothing about actual health- and then proceed to beat them over the head with it?
For me the answer to this contradiction lies in a conclusion I came to while researching and writing my book, Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic” (Rutgers University Press, 2012). Namely, I have come to believe that the moral panic over obesity and resulting anti-obesity policies, programs, and cultural values are about so much more than fatness. In Killer Fat I trace the emergence of the “obesity” epidemic through the media, public policy, and obesity research organizations. I also look at how this construction of obesity as an epidemic plays out in the lives of actual fat people. What I discovered is that concern over obesity- especially among children, the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities- serves to individualize responsibility for public health and to justify punitive policies against already disadvantaged groups while garnering huge profits for diet companies, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. Communities of color and poor communities are often targeted for having high rates of adult and childhood obesity, but proposed interventions remain individualized and rarely include any real attempt to alleviate structural barriers to good health like poverty, lack of affordable housing, and racism. Policy makers often favor nutrition education and “obesity awareness” campaigns that target parents (usually mothers) as the point of intervention into their communities’ “obesity problems.” In other words, the “obesity epidemic” is a way to talk about race, class, and gender in a way that not only ignores but also masks them as structural bases of inequality.