Michele Obama recently made headlines by announcing that because her daughters were becoming overweight, she had made a few changes around their house. Less television watching, switching to low-fat milk, water in their lunchboxes, more fruit and veggies at meals. On the surface, seemingly admirable moves as it’s generally accepted that the eating habits and lifestyles of both children and adults in the U.S. have gotten out of whack. But do these moves towards more healthful living have to be tied to weight?
Mrs. Obama’s disclosure was made in concert with the launch of a national campaign against childhood obesity. So why she made the connection is obvious. Still, Sasha and Malia are at vulnerable time in their lives, when their bodies, especially Malia’s, may be starting to go through changes of puberty. Those changes often mean putting on weight in advance of growth, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative about their ultimate health or, for that matter, body proportions. Further, these changes in size at this time of life can be important to good health.
It’s also a time when many young girls start to become more concerned about their appearance, although with our current over-focus on size in this country, studies show much younger girls are already concerned about their body size. Still, at Green Mountain, we hear stories all the time about how well-intentioned but misguided advice about the need to watch weight from parents and others at this time of life can set girls up for weight struggles for the rest of their lives.
So this post is our plea to separate concern about our children’s health from their body size. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) made these excellent points in a recent press release to encourage that separation.
- When important figures such as parents, teachers and peers in children’s social environment endorse a preference for thinness and place an importance on weight control, this can contribute to body dissatisfaction, dieting, low self-esteem and weight bias among children and adolescents (Davison & Birch, 2001; Davison & Birch, 2004; Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2006; Smolak, Levine, & Schermer, 1999).
- Prescribing dieting is, in effect, prescribing weight cycling, and many people will be fatter in the long run (Mann, 2007).
- Weight-control practices among young people reliably predict greater weight gain, regardless of baseline weight, than that of adolescents who do not engage in such practices (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006).
- Based on results from a population-based, longitudinal study with 2,500 teens, Neumark-Sztainer and colleagues at the University of Minnesota (2006) concluded that to prevent obesity and eating disorders, the focus needs to be on health much more than weight. The more weight per se is talked about, the more likely teens are to adopt dangerous dieting behaviors.
- A 2006 study from UCLA suggests our media and cultural obsession with achieving a certain weight does little or no good and may actually undermine motivation to adopt exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits.
- The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated in 2008 that childhood obesity has leveled off.
NAAFA goes on to say, “This issue is about the critical need to create environments in which children and adolescents do not feel shame or guilt about their bodies but, rather, are motivated to enjoy healthful eating and active living habits regardless of their body size or shape.” They also urge Mrs. Obama to:
- Partner with NAAFA and their many resources in the scientific and healthcare communities to examine this issue. Fat children are already the targets of merciless bullying. NAAFA urges Mrs. Obama not to support any programs that would create a pervasive bias against fat children.
- Consider Guidelines for Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs from the Academy for Eating Disorders, Childhood School Plans and Guidelines for Children at Healthy Weight Network.
- Support the Health at Every Size (HAES) tenets which state that healthy habits are good for EVERYONE, no matter what their size. Eat healthy, nutritious foods and enjoy occasional treats. Pay attention to your natural hunger and satiety cues. Move your body in ways that feel good rather than exercise focused solely on weight loss.
Will you consider sending a letter to Mrs. Obama asking that the focus of our national campaign to help children be healthy change from weight to health? The Body Positive invites you to use this template.