It's Been A Tough Week for Fat Kids in the Media

Using health as a smokescreen allows people to attack fat kids while looking virtuous.
Publish date:
September 28, 2012
fat, media, fat shaming, fat acceptance, obese lifestyle

This has been a real banner week for hassling fat kids in the media. The Obesityepidemiczorz scaremongering has been spilling over onto kids for a while, but Tuesday dealt a real triple-whammy (with cheese on top).

First, we had military officials informing us that fat children are a national security problem.

Then, we had the BBC speculating about why it is that parents “let” their children get fat.

And out of Minnesota, a campaign telling fat kids they’re an epidemic.


Here’s the thing, though: shame-based campaigns really, really don’t work. This has been pretty well established by this point, and it includes kids as well as adults. In fact, lecturing kids about how their gross fatness is RUINING EVERYTHING is directly harmful. As Marilyn Wann pointed out last year, the rise in rhetoric about “childhood obesity” has contributed to bullying on not just an individual but institutional level, and it’s led to a rise in suicide attempts among children and teens, some of which have been successful.

Funny thing. When much of the feedback you hear about yourself and your body is that you are a completely disgusting waste of space, you tend to internalize that. And you start to wonder if maybe the best solution to that would be to remove yourself from the equation. Can’t be an epidemic if you’re not around, you know.

The military has been making obesity a cause for quite some time, complaining that it contributes to a decline in force readiness and has forced it to lower enlistment standards to accept fatties. It’s even started holding pre-boot-camp fat camps to get people within the specifications for enlistment. Furthermore, it claims, it spends substantial sums annually on treating soldiers and family members with “obesity-related health conditions.”

And the military points the finger at high-calorie foods in schools like candy bars and chips with a rather colorful analogy:

The amount of junk food purchased and consumed within schools in the U.S. in a single year is the equivalent to 90,000 tons of candy bars, or more than the weight of an aircraft carrier.

Now you’re not just fat and gross: You’re destroying the fabric of American society as we know it, leaving us vulnerable to invasion or terrorist takeover or who knows what. When the empire falls, you have only yourself to blame, fat kids!

But don’t worry, the military has a solution: Legislation to limit the sale of “bad” foods. It argues that it's doing its part in military facilities to limit access to the number one culprits behind the spreading asscheeks of America, and it wants civilians to get with it. This despite the fact that the last ten years have been occupied with nothing but civilian handwringing over good and bad foods complete with repressive and pointless legislation, shaming campaigns, and yelling at people about how they’re eating wrong without providing them with meaningful alternatives or the nutrition and cooking education to implement said alternatives.

There’s a lot of generalizing here when it comes to the impact of fat on health, and the two are not as closely coupled as many people seem to imagine. The media has certainly done its part to keep people confused about the precise nature of the connection, despite the fact that numerous studies are challenging the idea that being overweight automatically leads to lower life expectancy and ill health. Oddly enough, the best indicators of individual health are things like cholesterol level, amount of daily activity, heart and lung function, and other things that actually need to be assessed during a detailed medical appointment, not the patient’s size.

And the fact that the BMI continues to be used as a benchmark for determining “health” and promoted as a reasonable means for categorizing people into good and bad is bullshit when you consider the fact that it’s, well, as Lesley put it recently, unscientific garbage. The BMI was not developed for the purpose it’s being used for today, and is in fact completely useless for assessing individual patient health, yet it’s become the specter used in the media, and in reports like the one just issued by the military, to frighten people into believing we’re gripped by a tidal waves of fatties threatening to break down the levees of all that is good about America.

The military is making the common mistake of conflating fat and fitness, and given the rather large platform it has to speak from, this has troubling implications. The question isn’t whether Americans are getting fatter, but whether people are able to meet the fitness standards for enlistment regardless of their weight. If soldiers are having trouble with those tests, it’s an indicator that we have an institutional problem with physical fitness: Not an individual problem with child fatties.

There’s an insistence on blaming individuals for structural problems here that is deeply gross, especially since a lot of the conversation about fatness and health hinges around the fact that some people think fat folks look icky, not that they’re actually concerned about their health. Using health as a smokescreen allows people to attack fat kids while looking virtuous.

If society is genuinely concerned about health, it might want to start with major reforms to industrial agriculture, which currently has active incentives to produce food of terrible quality for national distribution. It should focus on making sure that everyone has access to fresh, affordable foods, whether they live in rural areas, the inner city, or the suburbs. It should be thinking about how to provide people with the tools they need to make informed choices about what they eat and prepare food in a culturally appropriate, tasty, and functional way. It should be providing nationalized single-payer healthcare for everyone to ensure that people have ready access to medical care and preventative measures.

And it should perhaps be wondering why it is that physical activity levels are low for many people living in the United States. We live in a nation where adult employment is increasingly sedentary in nature, and where children are not encouraged to be as active as they once were. If there’s a genuine worry about whether kids are getting active enough to get their heart rates up and their limbs moving, why are we focusing on shaming kids for being fat instead of getting them involved in joyful movement?

The problem here isn’t fat kids: It’s bigoted adults with a limited understanding of medicine and science, making judgments on the basis of moral distaste rather than actual facts.

Image Credits: Isaac Brown for Stocky Bodies.