Obesity and Other Words that Make You Feel Awkward

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supermodel on beach

As a member of GaFCP’s communications team, someone who studied English and psychology, and a lawyer, I spend a lot of time thinking about words, messages, and motives.

Since September is Obesity Awareness Month, I thought it appropriate to dissect one group of messages I’ve heard a lot lately—the unavoidable clamor about our weight. I get as tired of negative messages about this issue as I do of political commercials in a presidential election year—and that’s doggone exhausted.

Unfortunately, I can’t just switch stations to avoid these messages. And when I’m honest with myself, I know I shouldn’t try to avoid them.

What I should do is my part to ensure the throng of messages about weight can end with any given parent saying, “I care about my child’s health and self-esteem, and I approve this message.” Here is one minor attempt to shift a conversation or two in that direction.

It’s a Crazy, Mixed-Up… Message
Let me say up front that this is not a female issue. My husband is a teacher, a coach, and a former college athlete, and he can articulate from a dude’s perspective how guys experience similar negativity and dissonance about weight. But I’m not a dude, so here it is from my perspective.

I enjoy a lot of different things in life—fly-fishing, playing sports, music, and politics… and fancy china and fashion. Admittedly, those last couple may seem silly, but shiny things and new dresses make me unapologetically happy—the end.

The problem is it’s sometimes difficult to purely enjoy these activities without a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model creeping in on my pleasure. Rarely do I eat a mealon Wedgwood china or a paper platewithout at least momentarily thinking about whether it’s hindering me from moving toward that commercial concept of an ideal body.

I would like to believe that I have an abnormal psyche that causes these thoughts to pop in my head, but anecdotal evidence collected over 30 years and the continued success of the freeze-dried diet meal industry convince me otherwise. I can attest that countless girls—young and old—struggle with these same thoughts. And, sadly, too many of them struggle to the point of harming their previously healthy bodies with the goal of moving their shape toward super-model status.

We want children to be fit. But, in our culture today, celebrities and models—whose bodies are unachievable for most people—set the standard for fit. We want children to be conscious of, and concerned with, their weight, but we don’t want their weight to define their worth. This is a difficult topic for most adults to handle. So how in the world are we to help our children tackle this issue?

I’ve watched and helped friends through struggles with eating disorders, I’ve studied the media’s influence on body image, I’ve discussed the childhood obesity epidemic with policy and health experts, and I’ve grappled with how my husband and I will address these issues with our own children one day. My conclusion? Phew. What a task we all have before us.

Un-Mixing the Message
The new and vital focus on preventing obesity is so multi-faceted that it’s dizzying to try and figure out where to begin. My mind immediately jumps to, “Please, never tell a child he or she is fat and should be skinny. Surely, that is not the answer.” A recent study from the University of Minnesota confirms that my instincts are at least right about that. 

Providing children with another reason to dislike the appearance of their bodies will only drive home the toxic notion that there is one ideal body shape and theirs is not up to snuff. Once children believe that, they will likely focus on how their bodies don’t look and what they can’t do. At the very least, I believe our obesity message should help children focus on what their bodies can do—how they look should be irrelevant. That message about health and strength just feels like the right direction to go with our children

Even our most basic message about preventing obesity will include multiple aspects—eating healthy, getting enough rest, staying active, and managing stress. But we must always ensure that we’re not abusing our children’s emotional health to better their physical health. Never should the appearance of our children be the motive of our message, and even more, we must take care that our words and actions toward our own bodies do not communicate that perception.

Phew! Like I said—what a task we have in sorting this out. But for our children’s health? Worth it!