Now we're fat-shaming children

Passing on our own food anxieties and forcing children into diets and extreme exercise regimes isn’t the solution.

Passing on our own food anxieties and forcing children into diets and extreme exercise regimes isn’t the solution. Photo: Getty

It’s been a bad week for picking on kids — especially overweight ones.

First came a repulsive fat-shaming video on Slate called Dear Prudence: A girl with an endless appetite. In response to a letter from a "concerned" mother about the eating habits of her daughter’s friend, agony aunt Prudie thought it would be helpful — funny even — to portray the little girl in question as a pig and her parents as tubs of lard.

Next came news out of the US of children being given homework assignments in which they were to circle the fat people in a picture. Another school weighs its students and has them taking letters home to parents with their BMI score — a practice advocated by some in Australia.

The crowning glory of kiddy fat shaming, though, was a Biggest Loser paid advertorial on Mamamia, where Jo Abi advocates putting kids on diets.

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And let’s not have any guff about The Biggest Loser being "inspirational" or about health. It exists for one thing, and one thing only: to increase network ratings, often at the expense of the contestants’ health.

The show has been slammed by health professionals and contestants alike, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting horror stories of trainers suggesting contestants stop drinking for up to 36 hours before being weighed, and celebrating dangerous and unrealistic weight-loss goals of up to 17 kilograms in one week.

Former contestant John Jeffery quit the show in 2008 because he feared someone would die. He wasn’t being over-dramatic either. As it is, several contestants have been hospitalised for dehydration and Dr Jenny O'Dea, Associate Professor of Health and Nutrition Education at the University of Sydney, has warned against some of its practices, such as making morbidly obese people run 10 kilometres in the summer heat.

"Dehydration combined with heat exhaustion will kill you," Dr O’Dea said.

Add to this the psychological damage of being humiliated and bullied in front of an entire nation (why else do contestants have to strip off for weigh-ins, other than for us to be collectively appalled and amused by their bodies?) — and the very real possibility of contestants regaining the weight, and the associated shame. One contestant even blames The Biggest Loser for triggering an eating disorder.

It’s bad enough that we fat-shame adults for our entertainment, whilst pretending to be "concerned", but setting our fat-phobic sights on children is indefensible.

Channel 10’s fat-shaming-kiddies ratings bonanza is being promoted as a way to stop bullying. And hey, I understand that nobody wants their children to suffer. I also get that we live in a society where the parents of fat children are considered to be negligent.

But passing on our own food and body anxieties, and getting in first with the bullying by forcing children into diets and extreme exercise regimes isn’t the solution.

Anyone who has ever tried to stick to a diet knows that the deprivation is soul-destroying and the self-restraint is all but impossible to maintain. When adults can’t stick to calorie-restriction diets, how on earth do we expect children to?

Actress and comedian Arabella Weir explains in Does My Bum Look Big In This? that denying children food is the fastest way to turn them into compulsive closet eaters with a terrible self-esteem.

"My parents believed they were helping me by pointing out to me that I ought not to waltz through life thinking it was ok to be me. They thought they were warning me of the pitfalls," writes Weir. "As I was, I wasn’t good enough. I must learn denial in order to reach a better me, and one more pleasing to my parents. The only trouble was that that’s quite a tall, if not unreachable, order for a child."

The idea of a child going hungry is barbaric. It’s also totally unnecessary. If we weren’t all so caught up on the aesthetics of our children’s bodies rather than their health, we would never even consider it, let alone put it on prime-time TV.

Despite what the advertising industry and a whole stream of self-appointed TV "experts" tell us, skinny and healthy are not the same thing. We should not be aspiring to raise "skinny" children; surely our job is to raise "healthy" children.

If we encourage our kids to be active, to play outside and to eat healthy food because it’s good for their growing bodies, bones and brains, and not because they need to hit some arbitrary figure on a weight chart, then we have done our job.

More than ever, we need to be teaching our children that the goal should be the process of living a health life and not the outcome of meeting a commercially-driven standard of beauty.

Once children internalise that their BMI is a measure of their goodness and self-worth, then we have set them up for a lifetime of failure and self-contempt. We have taught them that they should trust some arbitrary external measure rather than their bodies and their own judgment. And we have taught them that our love is conditional; that we will we be happier, prouder and more loving if they become something other than what they are.

What children need to hear from their parents, more than anything, is that we pick their team, and not team Biggest Loser.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of four books, 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

34 comments

  • A fat person recently shamed me for "teaching my neice to be anorexic" becasue I refused to buy her an ice-cream.

    Commenter
    Maree
    Date and time
    March 06, 2013, 10:21AM
    • Hehe, what did you say to him/her in response?

      Commenter
      butterball37
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 10:44AM
    • I was very taken aback by it so I didn't say much. But it shows how much the world has changed, when I was a kid only very bad parents/Aunts would give their kids ice cream every day. Now I get told I'm teaching anorexia an people like me are to blame for young girls having eating disorders. Since when is not eating sweets an eating disorder?

      Commenter
      Maree
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 11:21AM
  • I am now Morbidly obese. I had an aunt fat-shame me from the age of 8 (my parents told her not to). I had started to put on weight which in hindsite was because my body was changing with the onset of puberty. But I felt I was fat and once you feel that it's hard to shake it and it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I can't say for sure that I wouldn't be overweight now if I hadn't be shamed but I definitly would have significatnly less emotional scaring.

    Commenter
    Sarah-ji-h
    Date and time
    March 06, 2013, 10:27AM
    • I had the opposite experience. I was a fat child who is allowed to eat what I liked and I am now a morbidly obese adult. There is almost no right way to deal with this other than to promote healthy eating, but it is a fact that most fat children grow up to be fat adults. Stopping obesity in children is extremely important. We are in an epidemic - it's not about shaming kids, it's about saving their lives.

      Commenter
      missminute
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 4:23PM
    • Do you have evidence for this 'fact'? I know from my experience of the overweight children I grew up with only 2 of us are still fat. When I talk about fat-shaming I mean out and out bullying, including comments about nobody will ever love a fat girl and fat girls are stupid. it's about how you encourage children to live a 'healthy' lifestyle. by telling them no one will ever love them that is definitely the wrong way to go about it. Shaming children is the wrong way to go about most (if not all) things.

      Commenter
      Sarah-ji-h
      Date and time
      March 07, 2013, 9:03AM
  • "The idea of a child going hungry is barbaric"

    ALL WRONG

    The idea of giving children as much chips, lollies, icecream and sugar drinks is BARBARIC !

    My kids can have as much water, carrots, celery, fruit as they want. Never heard the phrase I'm hungry in my life with twin eight year olds. Kids are normal weight, never had to mention dieting.
    Articles like this are appalling, when they should be encouraging society to do the right thing they are defending the obviously wrong parenting techniques.

    Having a healthy looking child on TV is not wrong, feeding your kids garbage is.

    Commenter
    abc
    Date and time
    March 06, 2013, 10:28AM
    • How many times have I heard my kids say "but I'm starving!!!!!!" It's funny how they are never hungry enough to eat the healthy snack food on offer, cause of course what they mean is they want junk food. No, they don't get it.

      Not buying the junk food, not keeping it in the house is a pretty good start. My 6 year old is old enough to understand that some 'food' is all sugar with nothing in in to make her healthy, grow, feed her muscles, give her energy, fuel her brain etc. Now if when shopping, and in the cereal aisle she asks can we try this one and I say no, she says "sugar?" and I say, "exactly". Educate them young. Don't make it about fat, make it about what your body needs to function at it best. That way, there is room for sweets on occasion. Only a sometimes food.

      Commenter
      butterball37
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 10:50AM
    • Ok, so after writing my initial response, I see Michelle Obama and I do it the same way, I could have just posted this link:

      http://www.dailylife.com.au/health-and-fitness/dl-wellbeing/michelle-obama-wont-discuss-weight-with-her-daughters-20130306-2fjvi.html

      Commenter
      butterball37
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 10:56AM
    • You must have read a different article, because this one doesn't advocate feeding junk food all the time. It doesn't really comment on food choices specifically - although it does advocate raising 'healthy' rather than 'skinny' children.
      It's good you're raising your kids on healthy diets - I hope, however, that you aren't raising them with the kind of arrogance and self-righteousness you display here.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 12:11PM

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