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.
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