Childhood Obesity and the Pains of Weight Bias: What it Is and Why it Happens
Imagine that you as a middle school student are going to gym and your coach picks teams. He picks you and your physical education (PE) classmates one by one. Then he picks the fattest kids last. You and the majority of your fellow classmates laugh at them because you think that they are slowpokes. The fattest kids feel crushed due to your remarks.
Now imagine that you are the fattest kids in gym class. You wait your turn to be at one team, but you find that you're picked last. Everyone stares and jeers at you, with snide remarks. Having been called "the earthquakes" or "slow blobs," you feel depressed.
It's no surprise that many obese or overweight children are feeling the same emotional pinch. Their thinner peers call them pigs, teachers separate them from the rest of the class to make them sit at a roomier desk, and parents serve them salad while the rest of the family eats meatloaf. All those things that mentally prove to them that they are fat are just as bad as pigging out itself.
Childhood Obesity Goes Beyond Physical Health
Childhood obesity is a big health crisis around the world. If kids are overweight, especially in the middle, they risk having type II diabetes and asthma. They might face cancer, heart disease, strokes, and other ailments as young adults.
But there's more to that than just cardiac issues - there are both emotional and social complications as well. Most of them are clustered together as weight bias - a form of hate that focuses on singling out overweight or obese children. It's not just the peers who say that they block their views of something visible because they are so fat. Parents even tell them that they should go on a diet. All those examples of such hatred towards them hurt their feelings.
Certain Programs, Extracurricular or Not, Dictate Ideal Weight
There are certain programs that want their participants to be at a certain weight. A few school electives include dance classes, of which people see those who take them as thin and slender. But the issue is even worse outside of school, especially with extracurricular activities. Examples include colorguard, danceline, cheerleading, and baton twirling.
Speaking of the latter, a school from Pennsylvania ordered a majorette to drop a few pounds or she would miss marching at the first game. Despite dieting and taking gimmicks to lose pounds since band camp, she missed the first two games. On the cheerleading side, one mother once feared that her daughter wouldn't make the squad because of her weight. (She lost some of it and made it!)
Another extracurricular activity is dance school, and some of them are weight-discerning. Take the San Francisco Ballet School, for instance. At one point, they barred a girl for auditioning for them because of her body type. They were looking for a “a healthy child with a well-proportioned, slender body, a straight and supple spine, legs turned out from the hip joint, flexibility, slender legs and torso, and correctly arched feet, who has an ear for music and an instinct for movement.”
But one core school course that singles out huge kids is physical education, or PE. Coaches pick out (or allow peers to pick out if forming teams themselves) students from the thinnest to the heftiest. Also, the fat kids finish their laps last because their weight wouldn't allow them to run fast enough (Believe me, I was one of them.)
There's oftentimes a lot of competition in PE, and that bothers those with elephantine waists. In fact, a Canadian study showed that those who have those experiences would be less likely to motivate themselves to exercise as adults.
Whether mothers fear that their daughters would not make it to the kickline because they are fat or ballet schools want only thin students, weight discrimination is prevalent in certain activities in or out of school.
Hey, Fatty! How Peers Induce Weight Hate
The echoes of "Fatty! Fatty! Fatty!" resound throughout the school hallways, but they are not just spicing the atmosphere up. They aim at the pudgiest children.
Verbal abuse uttered by bullies who should have known better to steer clear from weight prejudice pierce fatter children as sharp as a knife. On the outside, those words are funny, but said in the context of them, they are hurtful. When I was little, my cousin called me "funny tummy." I jokingly told him to stop, but on the inside, I really meant it because it was baneful to my self-esteem.
If you are a teacher who just witnessed a group of kids announcing, "There's a wide load coming through," as an obese child passes by them, prepare to intervene.
Families Can Also Judge Little Big Books by their Covers
Weight prejudice sometimes starts in the home. Some children had to face padlocks locking their cupboards or refrigerators because they are eating too much. Some of them even have to eat just salads, celery sticks or even a small portion of vegetables instead of what the family eats for supper. Some of them have to go through boot camp regimens under their parents' control so that they can get enough exercise.
But the hardest things that they have to face are criticsm and teasing. When I was a little girl, I was obese. My cousin called me "funny tummy," and I laughed, "Stop it!" But inside, I really meant it because it hurt. That's what many fat children face: name-calling by siblings and cousins.
Many parents or adult relatives criticize their weight. There are stories of uncles, aunts, godparents, and grandparents saying that they would look more remarkable if they lose weight. Parents place them on ridiculous diet programs and have them spend summer vacations in overbearing weight loss camps with strict diet and exercise.
It's Not Just Ballet that Wants Kids to Be 'Thin,' Jazz Dance Does that, Too!
So Why Do People Single Out Fat Children (and What if It Segues On)?
There are multiple answers to those questions. Why do most peers hate their fatter ones? Why do parents want them to be "thin?" Why are family members have a sense of fat-phobia and wish that fat kids would look beautiful if they eat a strict diet and do hard exercise?
One reason is because some of those who tease, criticize, or single out "little porkers" is because they feel bad about themselves. Perhaps if they are in a bad mood or depressed, they might wag their fingers and tell them how fat they are. By doing so, they find relief and heightened mood, but the benefits are merely temporary.
Another reason why families and friends want pudgy children to slim down is because they are obsessed with thinness. This is particularly true with girls because they believe that the thinner women are, the more beautiful they would appear. The same holds true with activity instructors who want their students to be at a certain weight, especially ballet masters.
Thinness and bad moods aside, many portly youth pay the price of weightism by their own well-being. Not only they would face low self-esteem, but they also face loneliness, depression, and considerations of suicide. Also, they might resort to eating disorders like anorexia. Even worse, their quality of life is compared to those who have some form of childhood cancer.
Ways to Lose the Weight (of Poor Judgement and Self-Esteems)
Is eliminating weight stigma all that possible? The answer is a resounding yes. Here are some tips to helps families, teachers, and communities to stop all the teasing and criticism.
- Have Them Appreciate Themselves
People are not cookie cutters - neither do children of any age. So have them admire how good they feel about themselves.
- Expunge the Word "Fat" from Your Vocabulary
Fat is a word that associates strongly with being overweight. So stop using connotations with your weight and your child's and use positive statements instead.
- Have Them Look Up to Positive Role Models
Don't have them look up to role models based on weight. Have them look at their quality traits they can emulate. As a kid, I chose a British composer who did great television documentaries and who advocated music education. But they can pick out a clergyman, a sheriff, or even a Cast Member who attends characters at any Disney Park.
- Focus on Healthy Lifestyles
It's really ludicrous to just single out a child by having him eat broccoli as the family eats fried chicken. Ditto for having him jog laps as they enjoy swimming. Take time to eat healthier as a family (cook, have fruits front and center as snacks, etc.). Exercise together as a family by playing games and just having fun that gets them moving. (Don't call it "exercise" or "physical activity;" call it playtime!)
- Don't Be Afraid to Step In When Bias Happens
Be an advocate to preventing the issue. Tell someone who is saying to your little girl that she needs to "go on a diet" that it's not acceptable and you love her just the way she is.
- Advocate Weight Tolerance
There's nothing wrong with shouting out words that encourage fat people to accept who they are. Tell the dance companies to put programs in place that welcomes dancers of all sizes, for instance.
If you have bad memories of childhood weight bias, don't be afraid to talk to someone who cares. Also, you may want to consider doing EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), a way of clearing the past by tapping parts of your body.
But you don't need to be a parent to combat the issue in which families and communities single out kids of higher weights. You too, can help them fight back yourself!
Here's A Video from Yale!
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