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What if it was about overconsumption instead of obesity?

Gwen recently wrote Blubber, a post that deals with perceptions and new tactics of dealing with obesity and weight.

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!"

Really? Wow.

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. 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


Gwen said…
You vixen. At first I was like, sure, you can quote and link me.

But now I'm not so sure .....


I'll be baaahkk.
thailandchani said…
I think Gwen is on to something. The primary goal should be health, mindful eating as a part of mindful consumption of all types.

The main thing is to take the shame and judgement out of it.


Kate said…
First off, you look faboo! Really!

So I went to the "Better Ideal Weight Body Calculator".

My BMI, much to my dismay, is 26. Sigh. But. For my height, a weight of 125 is great. (The idea that you, at 5'10", were at 110, just freaks me out--you must have been as skinny as a stick!)

Anyway, on the calculator, the "People's Choice" was...125 lb. A few of the other options were scarily low, in my opinion. Me at 104 lbs.--that's scary. I have a medium frame, and 104 lbs. on me looks like skin and bones.

My ideas about the childhood obesity issue? Stop getting rid of recess, for god's sake. Make kids get out and play. Every day. Teach parents to put the kibosh on sitting around and watching TV all the time.

Restaurants should return to normal sized plates. Did you know that the average restaurant plate size has increased two inches since the 1960s? Scientists have shown that people tend to gauge their eating by the size of the dish--someone who is served soup in a big bowl will eat more but say that they've eaten just the same as when they're served soup in a smaller bowl.

Get rid of fast food in the schools. Get rid of sodas in the vending machines. Like I said, don't cut recess, but add it.

It's not just the food. It's the lack of activity.

(And I have an eyeball on high fructose corn syrup as well; I recently read that it doesn't turn on the body's indicators for satiation, so while a certain amount of sugar would be seen by your body as "enough", the same amount of HFCS doesn't trigger the "full" feeling.)
Lawyer Mama said…
Wow, it's kind of scary how right on that thing is. My "ideal" weight for my height is 125. Which is exactly where I'd like to be and about 25 pounds away from where I am now. (EEK! Now you can figure out my weight!)

You look great, by the way.
Julie Pippert said…
Gwen, just waiting... :)


Chani, I think she's on to something too (but I better watch how often I say it b/c you guys are going to start accusing me of blogging for profit---calling Gwen my employer LOL).

I completely agree with you, too (also better watch that LOL).


No shame. No shaming.

Get people to grasp the IDEA is to be healthy, not thin!


Kate, thanks dahlink. You know, I looked at photos from last summer (pre-weight loss) when I was in PA and was AGHAST; I looked as bad as I felt. It made me realize how much better I am doing.

At that low weight I was also not yet out of my teens! Does not count! Was not fully grown yet!

The 104 bit is why I think the range is so essential, but needs to be better explained.

Once I found a great chart that had weight range for frames. I wanted to include that but didn't find it. It's even better than the calculator---well, or better WITH it.

HFCS and aspartame are bad for that.

And I LOVE your ideas.

I HATE teachers using reces as a privilege. And revoking it as punishment.

It worries me teaching us all to be desk jockeys.


LawyerMama, I so don't judge. I have lost 35 lbs and need 10ish more to go (and then will still weigh more than Gwen ;) ) The point for me isn't so much the number as how you feel, and how you feel you look.

Oh NO! Maybe I TOTALLY didn't get that across, espcially by referring people to a site with NUMBERS.

ARGH...edit in mind. My inherent subconscious prejudice just undercut my entire point. DRAT!
S said…
I think you look great in that photo!

Portion size, fast food, soda and junk food in schools, products like Lunchables, these all contribute to the problem, to my mind.
Magpie said…
No bones about it, I need to lose some weight. The thing is though, I don't think I look fat. Body image is weird. Maybe my bones are made of lead.
Unknown said…
Great post and great question from Gwen. I like Gwen's take on the over consumption because it is so true. And, like you said, it's not just food. I think the whole idea of keeping up with the Jone's perpetuates the over indulgence in this country, causing people with plenty to feel inferior.

One of the best things that is happening now because of the web and cable and all, is the globalization bringing world wide issues into every household. Somehow seeing how the rest of the world's average citizens live makes you take a step back and be content (and grateful) with what you have.

But, to the question at hand... I am within my healthy weight, but to me, I want to lose 10-15 pound. Ironically, this is a result of the reasons you state. All my life I have been stick thin, so now having this extra weight (even within healthy standards) feels awkward and wrong for me. It's more than just an image thing, to my lifestyle and comfort level.

As for the school, I think it would have been more acceptable to send out a blanket letter stating the facts. If you kid weighs x, then they are overweight. Then offer the services (which is an applaudable effort on their part) to any parent willing to care about their child's health.

A lot to think about for sure!
Unknown said…
well, that calculator was interesting. My weight fell in the range of the BMI index, but my actually BMI index was on the higher side of the range, which I think is okay while breastfeeding, but longterm is probably bad b/c of heart disease.
I wish we could teach kids what healthy foods to add to their diets instead of putting the focus on everything they have to give up. Our overweight kids in schools already have enough to be sad about. It'd be great to see this "marketed" better, as exciting, fun and worth spending time on. Instead we criticize and withhold.
Unknown said…
The picture is great! Your older daughter definitely takes after you. I'm so glad to finally know what The Ravin' Picture Maven looks like!
Gwen said…
Well according to your medical info, I am perfectly perfect. How sweet to be me! :)

And this post has inspired me to write a new one of my own, instead of taking over your comments with my rambling. I'll let you know when it's done. HOWEVER, Someone told me last night that my posts are too rambly and I recently had a tiff with my mom re: my blog, so I am currently suffering a crisis (and oh such a crisis, harumph) of confidence. All that to say, don't hold your breath .....

(I mean that the crisis really isn't all that big a deal, lest you miss my sarcasm).
Catherine said…
I like your take on this...and Gwen's. Overconsumption IS an issue. I also find it odd that, while America IS struggling with obesity, we are also struggling with the opposite problem - an increasinging unhealthily thin view of normal. I've actually written a post on that which I haven't posted yet, so maybe I'll link back here...full circle!

And yes, you were very charming. :)
Unknown said…
And now I'm back...

I kind of think the approach to obesity is a both/and kind of thing. I do believe that one of the underlying causes of the increase is our culture/economy being so entertainment based and time crunched. Movies and TV are so readily available (although not as inexpensive as before) that we are encouraged to spend so much time watching... and eating while we watch. Convenience foods are, well, so convenient that it is easier to eat fast foods/packaged foods than take the time to shop/cook more healthfully. So, I do think an emphasis on raising awareness of consumption would be good.

BUT, I also think working from the other end is a good idea, also. My daughter knows more about healthy eating and the need for exercise than I did at her age. They've done a good job adding that information at her school. They have Phys. Ed. for all grades at her school (many don't, because the school has to pay for it out of their budget, not the district budget). Twice a week, the PE teacher has my daughter working pretty hard. I never had that in elementary school.

BUT (again with the but!) all that good influence is competing with the ads/television shows/my bad example. I think when a problem is that big (no pun intended), it is good to be slow, methodical, patient, and willing to work at it from more than one angle.

Does that make sense?
Kyla said…
This was perfect, Julie. I think looooots about this. Part of me does want to be the weight I once was, and I am constantly reminding myself that I have left my teens and married and given birth to two children, my body is not what it once was. I just joined Curves last week, because I don't feel I'm at a healthy weight for my height and age and I want to be in better shape overall. And by the calculator, I am slightly higher than I should be. I think, though, that they norms are tricky for me. At age 23, I don't think that the charts expect me to have birthed two children in the past 5 years. That being said, I am not dieting. To lose a proper amount of weight in a healthy manner, I think I need to exercise, which I am; and be mindful of what I put in my body, which I am trying to improve on. I want to make these changes now, while I am young so they become lifelong habits for me.

Basically, I totally agree with everything you've said here. And you look GREAT!!!
Gwen said…
Hola, my pretty pretty friend.

I have posted something about this. Let's see if I can figure out how to put the link here:

Dueling Banjos
Unknown said…
You don't say what kind of allergies you have but I am sure you know that if you have any kind of hayfever, runy nose, sctatchy throat type symptoms, icecream or any other kind of dairy foods are the worst thin you can do foryourself because they encourage the creation of more mucos. Better find another kind of comfort food.
Unknown said…
The school would have been a lot more "pc" to send out the information to every student or at least every household in the district. That way it would have been more of a public service type thing and no one would have felt singled out. As far as over consumption goes, it is hard to justify this arguement unless we are taking food from others who need it. I think we have more of a world distribution problem and an overpopulation problem but that is a different discussion, isn't it?
K said…
You look fantastic!

I'm female, aged 36, 5'1", 112-114lbs (depending on what I ate that day),BMI of 21.5. I no longer care what I weigh as long as I'm living healthy. I think that I am normal for me. Some people are thinner, some are heavier.

I think reducing obesity to overconsumption smacks all too well of the obese stereotype personified in kid's movies. The overweight kid is a lazy glutton who eats everyone's food, but all is forgiven when he helps the kids by winning the hot dog eating contest.

I have never known an obese person who was so because they simply ate too much. Usually their weight was a result of poor nutrition and underlying issues.
cinnamon gurl said…
I think weight is a pretty arbitrary number that does not measure thinness or health, although I haven't checked out that alternative you linked to yet. I will.

I am 5'10ish and the lowest I have weighed since I reached this height was 145 pounds. I was seriously skin and bones (except for a few dimples on my ass)... jutting hip bones, knees that hurt if I laid on my side.

There is a picture of me belly dancing at when I was probably around 165ish pounds (I didn't weight myself until I had to when I was pregnant). I think I looked pretty damn good, and I would not have described myself as big.

Now I'm probably around 185ish... bigger than I used to be, but still ok, in my opinion.

I think the more people talk about health the more it's a thinly veiled reference to thinness... seems to me that fat is the new measure of morality, and references about epidemics of obesity are not really about healthy choices but morality.


Now I am going through the comments, and note that you said, The point for me isn't so much the number as how you feel, and how you feel you look.

I don't think looks should come into it at all in a perfect world. I had an anorexic friend in high school who at her most skeletal, near-death weight, still felt she needed to lose weight. Our minds and body images can easily be warped by starvation. She didn't think she had a problem... it took years before she finally accepted that she did.

I'm not suggesting you are anorexic, but I don't think our internal eye can really be trusted. I didn't get fat as a teenager until I was told I was fat. Looking back at pics from when I started hearing I was fat, I do not believe I was. But once I thought I was fat, that was it, I might as well go whole hog and eat eat eat to feel better.

I have done a lot of work on my body image, and I believe that it is far better for me to focus on acceptance of my body at any size, than to try to change the size. That said, I am all for health, and mindful eating, and I am about to embark on a program of changing my eating habits again... I have been eating way too many cookies and too few veggies, probably caused by long-term severe sleep deprivation and breastfeeding.

I hope my comment doesn't come off sounding judgmental or hard-assed. This body image thing is complex and tightly knotted.

off to check out that alternative healthy weight calculator thingie.
Julie Pippert said…
K, good way of putting it. Okay and wow, intriguing point about overconsumption. I agree it is often about healthy choices, real ones, not ones labels on prepackaged foods tell us we are making. But more than that, your point about "I have never known an obese person who was so because they simply ate too much. Usually their weight was a result of poor nutrition and underlying issues." is spot on.


Cinnamom Gurl,


First, you don't sound judgmental and I appreciate your comment. Lots of good points to ponder.

We all come at this from different angles, experiences, POVs, etc.

So different aspects of it jump out. I think we'll all spend our lives unraveling ourselves back to what we once knew about ourselves, if that makes any sense.

You wrote, "I think the more people talk about health the more it's a thinly veiled reference to thinness... seems to me that fat is the new measure of morality, and references about epidemics of obesity are not really about healthy choices but morality."

I think sometimes it is. In fact, that is one reason the note home troubled me. It's a problem and people get this size/weight thing out of perspective, and use it as a measure of a person.

But sometimes it's not (just about thinness and morality).

For example, when I'm going through weight loss, as I am now, the point can so easily be mistaken as one of aiming for thin. I say healthy and mean healthy. At my former weight, I wasn't healthy. I know what that felt like. I know what now feels like. Systemically, it's a completely different thing.

When I say I want ten pounds gone, it's a way of saying, "I know I'm not as fit as I'd like to be." I'm used to an athletic, well-toned body. I like feeling strong and...healthy.

I do know that sometimes our internal eye is wrong and skewed. I know how easy it is to have personal normal messed with by bad messages around us.

But I don't think my internal eye is skewed. My goal weight is a healthy weight. I lose weight under the care of my doctor, and with support from groups like Weight Watchers.

I am working through issues with food and eating, and am still at the point of having to be very conscious about it all---what I eat, how much I eat, why I am eating.

The biggest part of getting healthy means the whole package to me: body, mind and spirit.

It might be that you missed my vanity series so I'm not sure, this whole thing might seem out of left field LOL.

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