She informed us about
a school district in Wyoming that has become aggressively involved in the health of its overweight students. The story led with a snippet about a sixth grade girl who is 5’2” and weighs 179 pounds***. When the school sent home information about her obesity and offered help in the form of an after school fitness and exercise program, her parents were offended. “Brittany has always been teased about being fat,” her mother responded. “And this didn’t help. And it’s not that she’s really that fat; she’s just large boned. We all are. This is Wyoming. We’re a meat and potatoes kind of family.” The school generated 200 letters that targeted overweight children; less than 25 families accepted the offers of help. One of the mothers who did respond positively said something like, “It’s not that I’m blind. I can see my child is overweight, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
I responded that I thought the action was inappropriate.
I'm not against educating for better health, and I strongly advocate for healthy living. I post my weight loss on my blog every week so clearly I don't believe in complacency when one is overweight.
However, the image this news story put in my head was one of teachers roaming elementary school halls looking for Fat Kids, writing their names on a little list, and turning it in the the principal, who had his secretary send out a "Your kid is FAT and here's what you should be doing to do better, including joining the Fat Kid Weight Loss Single Out Program After School," letter (created by the district--who might even get a list of the names too?). That sat...very badly with me.
Gwen challenged me with a question I didn't have time to answer before the conversation moved on...and anyway, if I have such a lengthy reply, might as well use my own real estate.
Her question was:
And I wonder if we framed the obesity question differently, if it would be less offensive to you, J. What if it became about overconsumption, as an economic and ethical issue, not a health or beauty one? What if someone said, you know, with food distribution inequities being what they are, is it really moral for a country such as the U.S. to consume so much of the world food supply? Would that change anything for you personally?
That's a great question and the overconsumption issue is valid, but honestly, another post altogether.
My problem---my "offense"---has little to do with addressing obesity. My issue is with the tactics we use to address it. My issue is with our perceptions and expectations of our body size. My issue is with the almost universally flawed self-image we all carry, or more to the point, the universally flawed image of how we ought to look that we carry.
First, let's do a little exercise. It's easy; no studying required. And you only have to answer in your own mind.
1. How much do you weigh?
2. What's your height?
3. Gender and age?
4. How much do you think you should weigh? How much do you want to weigh?
5. Where do you think your body size is in comparison to people your gender, age and height?
I think I am a little large. It's why I am losing weight. However, the truth is...I do fall in the healthy range. My ideal weight? Exactly where my target is: get ten more pounds off, maybe 15 if I want to be perfect (which I don't). I'm having a lot of trouble shedding the last ten. I suspect what I really need to do is cut out some of the treats I indulge in now and again and increase my exercise. But I'm healthy and I look fine, so to be honest, my motivation to shed those last ten isn't super high. I've already shed a solid 35 pounds. I was initially despondent when the scale froze: I hadn't hit goal. But other things have consumed my time and attention, it's allergy season when I feel like crap and by golly if a small cup of neopolitan ice cream gives me a momentary high then I'll take it, and maybe I'm not ambitious enough because so far "good enough for now" is suiting me. Plus, my friends? Who are way too nice? All tell me I look fabulous and think I am nuts to want to lose ten more pounds. They can't imagine, they tell me, where I'll lose it from.
I know exactly where I'll lose it from: my bottom, hips, belly, and upper thighs. The same trouble spots most women cite, including my friend Gwen.
Gwen thought she was average. In truth, she is at the very bottom of healthy weight range for her height. Gwen, my friend, this makes you thin, healthy no doubt and fabulous, but yes, thin.
What's interesting to me is that we both thought of ourselves as larger than any of the calculators I reviewed put us. I was pretty much in line with my height peers, though, in wanting to be about ten pounds less. However, most people Gwen's height would be happy to weigh 5 pounds more than she does, which I feel safe hazarding a guess is probably about ten pounds less than they currently weigh.
Gwen acknowledges this issue:
I’m not sure we—as a specific culture—even know what normal is anymore. Am I normal? Am I skinny? Am I larger than average? I’m confused, and I didn’t even grow up in this country, constantly besieged with billboards and movie theaters and television screens of very very tiny women.
I'm positive we don't know what's normal.
I see and hear an obsession with looking just like one did in high school, for example. Halle Berry, in an interview, says she kept one pair of jeans she wore junior year of high school. Every year she tries them on to ensure they still fit. "If they do," she said, "All's well!"
Healthy weight ranges change with age and stage of life.
I don't expect to be my current height (which I hit in college, not junior year of high school, when I was a full 5 inches shorter than now) of slightly over 5' 10" tall and weigh what I did when I first reached this height: 110-115 lbs---a weight I maintained for a number of years. I was up to about 120 when I got married, and stayed there until my late twenties. My weight gain began in my early thirties and got worse with each pregnancy (actually, it was the nursing that did me in).
Catherine recently had a great discussion about weight and body image, post-partum.
I know it's hard to undergo extreme life and body changes all at once. Talk about a massive mental and physical reframing, under less than ideal conditions: stressed and fatigued. I am 100% understanding that many women are distressed by their size, which might really not be healthy. I also understand when this desire to get to a "better" weight goes to an extreme of wanting to look like one did before one became a mother----could this be a physical manifestation of the desire for some of what you lost of yourself when you gained the new status of mother?
How ironic to want to lose in order to gain.
The problem is the contextual framing. Getting back to the exercise you did a little bit back, have a look at this better ideal weight calculator. It's the one I really like because it shows you a variety of options for calculations of ideal weight and suggests a formulation that is better for women as well as one for men.
Now...how did your answers compare to the weights on the calculator? I'd love it if you just said something to that effect in your comment (pretty please!) (men too!).
What is your body image? Is it healthy, as healthy as your weight maybe?
And what if both need work?
Come sit by me, we can work together.
How can I possibly easily and regularly feel at peace with my body size when that perception is challenged daily by messages around me screaming: LOSE WEIGHT, be HOT, look GREAT! TV ad after TV ad, magazine covers, interviews with stars, public service messages about an epidemic of obesity that barrage you with the idea that everyone in the US is overweight and needs to stop eating, and...letters from school districts.
I do think we overconsume in this country. Across the board, by which I mean it's not limited to food. I'm happy to discuss both overconsumption and obesity, both of which are real issues.
The current tactics? Not working.
Just look at the numbers; obesity is on the rise and has gotten worse despite these campaigns:
* "Data from two NHANES surveys show that among adults aged 20–74 years the prevalence of obesity increased from 15.0% (in the 1976–1980 survey) to 32.9% (in the 2003–2004 survey)." Source: CDC
* The National Center for Health statistics has been tracking America’s obesity problem for over four decades. The following statistics support the growing concern regarding the obesity problem in America.
-- Between 1962 and the year 2000, the number of obese Americans grew from 13% to an alarming 31% of the population.
-- 63% of Americans are overweight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) in excess of 25.0.
-- 31% are obese with a BMI in excess of 30.0.
-- Childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled in the past two decades.
-- According to the U.S. Surgeon General report obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths every year.
Source: American Sports Data
What do I think is the flaw, and why do I think that eating disorders and obesity are two sides of the same coin---and all campaigns targeted at either side are equally distorted and reflective of the problem causing both conditions?
Because both focus on size. They all focus on the incredibly vague (and potentially unhealthy) idea of thin.
Look, two women in the healthy weight range both think they need improvement. Spread that across a population and apply it to people younger or more vulnerable, and I think you see why there are eating disorders.
I'm tired of hearing everything revolve around fat and thin and looking good to someone else's standards.
Why don't these big time stars like Halle Berry worry more and talk more about health instead of being teen-aged thin? Why don't these health advocates doing these obesity PSAs put time into explaining healthy eating? Why don't the groups behind the campaign show information about portion control instead of trying to put the fire of fear into us via a Come to Jesus style of ad? Why don't school districts offer to have a nutritionist come in to the school one night a week to show families how to cook healthy meals and serve healthy portions instead of sending home Fat Letters and segregating overweight kids into after school programs?
I don't mean stop the after school exercise and fun programs. I don't mean there isn't anything out there about health, healthy eating, etc. I'm talking about the tactics we see every day trying to get us to these good ends via bad means.
Let's be constructive. Let's get healthy: body and mind, and most especially, spirit.
Now, as a reward for hanging in, a (sorry poor quality and grainy but I take what I can get) photo of me in the recent fashion show (this is the "daytime casual" outfit) (cute, for someone else LOL):
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert