‘Gosh, she’s sooo heavy!’ is not really an exclamation you want to hear uttered by someone as they lift your child onto their lap. Especially if that someone is loved and respected by your child and in a position to influence her. And when you are a fat mother, and a feminist, and that person is a relative (whom you love, but don’t always understand), it makes for a pretty tense moment. Which is fucked up, I realise, because my kid is heavy, and remarking on it shouldn’t be any different to remarking on her eye colour. But it is.
My daughter, for the record, is not ‘obese’ or fat. Not that I should have to state that here, since it’s not anyone’s business nor particularly relevant. (Really, I shouldn’t have to, and I’ve written and deleted that sentence multiple times, but I do state it because I know some of you are wondering and I know that, sadly, in this ridiculous climate of obesity panic and parent-blaming, it’s just going to be that way). She is, however, tall for her age and she has a large head and solid limbs. She’s strong; she has heft.
I was like that as a kid. I thought I was hu-ugely fat by the time I was a pre-teen but photographic evidence shows me that I was not. The fat came later, long after the bullying began.
People who comment on my daughter’s solidity don’t necessarily see her as fat, with all the judgement and stigma that unfortunately implies, but we know that young children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to experiencing weight messaging as a hit to their self esteem . And I know that as a fat parent, I am doubly scrutinised. The shape and weight of my child is, for some, tied directly to the strength of both my morality and my parenting skills. It’s also true that as she grows, my child will comprehend the stigma that is attached to having a body like mine and, because stigma is awful, she may fear it falling on her. Whatever kind of body she grows into, she may suffer because of other people’s lack of sensitivity and compassion, as well as the general public’s lack of real knowledge of the relationship between fat and health. That hurts to know.
I was once told that I had an obligation to become thin (as if I could just choose to be and, voila!) because my kid will grow up looking at me and thinking that fat is a way to be. As if, somehow, she would catch my fat, no matter how our family lives and eats and moves and no matter what her genetic predispositions. (This person assumed, as many do, that thin is objectively healthier and ‘better’ than fat.) Some people think children should be kept from the terrible knowledge that contented fat people exist because that would, by some sorcery, mean that the notion of fatness would never occur to them and they would always remain thin. Some people just don’t believe fat parents can possibly provide a healthy home. Some people think parents of fat children are by definition lazy or incompetent or unloving. Some people are ignorant. Some people are arseholes.
Some of those people have been in the media this past week talking about a study which, it has been widely reported, recommends that very fat children be removed from their parents and put into foster care. One of the problems with this is that the study has been widely misrepresented: have a read of this break-down by Dr Samantha Thomas if you’re interested. I’m not in the least surprised that the media haven’t been more accurate and sensitive in their handling of this ‘news story’. That’s par for the course when it comes to ‘obesity’ and they do love to parade us fatties as cautionary tales. Unfortunately, what could have been an opportunity for some serious discussions about systemic barriers to good health and the ethical problems with performing gastric banding surgery on minors, became a great big festival of fat hate with a large helping of mother blaming. Especially poor mothers, cause they’re really easy to hate on, apparently.
Opportunities for bonus misogyny aside, childhood obesity is a juicy story, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to conveniently forget the facts. In Australia at least, rates of ‘childhood obesity’ have plateaued and we’ve known that for a few years now. On the other hand, rates of body dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviours like yo-yo dieting are increasing in young people. But it’s far easier to scapegoat parents — most often mothers who are more typically charged with cooking and shopping — than to consider some of the nuance here. There is a strong case to make for changing the story from one about ‘childhood obesity’ to one about ‘childhood poverty’ (because yeah, fat kids can be undernourished kids) but that would involve facing up to some ugly social inequality and who wants to hear about food deserts when we could see a glossy grab about how Happy Meals are killing our children, amirite?
Hyper-awareness of childhood ‘obesity’ leads to shit like the absolute violation of privacy and trust that is public weigh-ins and fat shaming in educational settings. It increases the stigmatisation and bullying of fat kids but apparently not even prominent anti-bullying advocates give a shit about that, so would should the media?. Unless the bullied fat kid ends up in a viral video, and then the mainstream media will run stories about how he responded to that bullying the wrong way.
I know some readers may see this as contradictory: one minute I’m saying that kids are everyone’s responsibility and then the next I’m saying that we shouldn’t subject them and their families to undue scrutiny! Oh my!
But actually, I ask people to care about children and young people and about mothers and parents, and that implies reserving snap judgements. I ask people to approach parents with compassion, to educate themselves enough to understand the pressures that families face, to realise that individual circumstances vary, and to recognise that systemic barriers to ‘good parenting’ and ‘lifestyle choices’ exist. This complements an acknowledgement that children have the right to live free from abuse and bullying, from undue coercion and from deprivation. And it makes it harder to keep foisting the responsibility for society-wide health concerns onto individuals.
Whatever your beliefs about fat and health (and hey, I know you’ve got ’em), you’ve got to acknowledge that stigma is harmful. There is no value from a health-promotion perspective in further stigmatising fat people, and certainly not fat children. Most people can’t self-loathe their way to permanent thinness (and certainly not to good health). Fat hate won’t amount to a positive contribution to society, no matter how many ‘reality’ TV shows imply otherwise.
My kid is three years old and she’s already learning what it means to have a heavy body in the midst of ‘obesity’ panic. You cannot tell me that’s for her own good.
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