Childhood obesity’s real problem

Our response to a national epidemic is as damaging as the problem itself

BRATTLEBORO — I am a local preschool teacher and love running around and being outside with my kids every day. I am an avid gardener at my home, and I am interested in local foods and nutrition. I have also attempted to unify my preschool and gardening interests by becoming part of the Farm to School movement.

Given my profession and my interests, I hear an awful lot about childhood obesity and, quite frankly, I am tired of it.

Childhood obesity is the epidemic that threatens our livelihoods. Yes, I am aware that this generation of kids who are growing right now might have a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation due to health issues.

Yes, I understand the importance of too much weight on a young body and how, according to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity is affecting 17 percent of all children and adolescents at “triple the rate from just one generation ago.”

However, another really important factor that seems to fall to the wayside is that we as a society are obsessed with size. Big is bad and little is good. The bigger you are, the badder you are. The littler you are, the better you are.

The epidemic of childhood obesity and our labeling of appropriate body sizes will lead to a much worse epidemic of body self-consciousness, size obsession, and lifelong insecurity - none of which a child should begin to deal with at such a young age.

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Another thing I have learned from teaching children is that they know a lot more than I previously thought, quite often surprising me. They listen a lot better and they pick up things a lot more quickly than I (sometimes) wish they would.

Growing up, they will hear these discussions, the same ones that I have heard on childhood obesity at a Farm to School conference, at a staff meeting, chatting with my friends.

They will know what “obese” means, and because of our wonderful mass-media campaigns, they will know what sizes are not considered to be acceptable on our television shows, magazines, in our video games and, now, within our health advocacy programs.

Additionally, tons of resources about childhood obesity say in the same sentence: “We care about these children, but they are fat.” This kind of language creates an idea that we love these children in spite of the fact that they have this visible fault.

The language should be: “We love you, and you are fat.”

As it turns out, body positivity can go a long way.

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Which brings me to the question: why is the discussion around childhood obesity so negative?

I eat lunch in the classroom with my kids every day, and they all get pretty much the same ingredients in their lunches: yogurt that comes in a tube or a cup, fruit that is in a plastic cup or fresh, a sandwich of some kind, and gummies.

All of my kids eat pretty much the same things at school with different variations, but they are all different sizes. And that's fine. It's more than fine. It points to the fact that everyone metabolizes things differently. Everyone has a different body type, and all of those body types are okay - not just one.

We are so size obsessed that if two of my kids are eating the same thing for lunch, one of them will be labeled as “obese” because of their body type and one will not. (In adulthood, let me tell you, I know a lot of people skinnier than I am who eat a lot worse than I do. The focus, again, is on size and weight, not nutritional intake.)

To solve the giant problem of childhood obesity, can we take a baby step by calling it something else? Can we call it “nutritional differences”? And can there be a push to avoid labeling someone's size or shape “obese” and chalking the child up to another failed statistic and instead focus on nutrition?

This treatment is disgusting. It's sizist. And it's avoiding the real problem of nutritional availability for all people. It's not fair for 17 percent of kids to grow up labeled as obese. Problems with food systems go much deeper than that.

I don't want to hear the words “childhood obesity” together anymore - whether it's for “positive” reasons or not.

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