August 2011

First they came for your fat kids...

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Did Dr. David Ludwig of Harvard go all Jonathan Swift on us, when he suggested fat kids should be removed from their parents’ care?

Not quite. As it turns out, the media blew out of proportion his and researcher Lyndsey Murtagh’s commentary advocating government intervention in extreme cases. No “Modest Proposal,” this; apparently, the good doctor does not want to create and unleash the Fat Police — nor even satirically suggest doing so to make a point.

But the fact that he could raise the possibility for the media to run with should be cause for concern. Not because parents are trying their best, or need help, or because being labeled fat stigmatizes kids, as pundits have suggested. Rather, it’s cause for concern because parents do not “make” their children fat.

Repeat: Parents. Do. Not. Make. Their. Children. Fat. Not anymore than they can “make” their children brunette, or tall, male, or female simply by changing “habits” and “getting with the (government) program.”

While you can starve a child, you cannot “obesify” a child. Even overfeeding a child is not a guarantee he or she will become fat — and the mere fact that a child happens to be fat does not mean he or she has been overfed. Nor does it mean parents are too stupid, or unwilling, or unable to buy quality food and make sure the family gets ample exercise.

It just means some children do not conform to others’ aesthetic preferences.

But you won’t hear the finger-waggers and the head-shakers saying that. It doesn’t fit with The Message. Fat kid = bad parent. End of story. And once again, weight becomes a matter of virtue, in this case, parenting virtue and responsibility.

I truly wish the fat-haters would take the kids out of their gun sights. Don’t they have enough to do, what with guilt-tripping me into conformance, and codifying discrimination against large bodies? But, no. Apparently, they so hate fat bodies that they want to target even the very young — the better to ensure the kiddies don’t grow up fat, my dear, haha!

These same folks probably would write me off as a fringe lunatic — a fat fringe lunatic, to boot. But there’s ample evidence to support what I say.

Exhibit A:

“Weight is as heritable as height.” This, from the safely thin Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, who also told New York Times science writer Gina Kolata: “We have this naïve view that the whole system of weight control can be controlled by willpower,” and concludes that eat less- move more hasn’t made people thin, though it’s been the go-to advice for millennia.

This does not mean people genetically disposed to heft are powerless in the face of a Twinkie. But it does mean their heft isn’t attributable to Twinkie binges and prolonged couchsurfing. It means their genetics predispose them to being fat — and that it’s much harder for them to lose weight or maintain weight loss. (Neither of which, it should be noted, are easy for anyone.)

Exhibit B:

Dr. Jules Hirsch, Rockefeller University, concludes: Fat people do not eat significantly more than thin people. And, almost no one exercises enough to make a true dent in their caloric needs. (Kolata.) Also per Kolata, Benjamin Caballero, of Johns Hopkins, studied more than 1,700 kids in 41 schools in the 1990s. His test program taught kids how to select healthy fare, and ensured they got regular physical activity, as well as the tools to pass along the info at home. It resulted in … no significant weight loss. Healthier kids? Likely. Thinner kids? No.

Exhibit C:

Dr. Mickey Stunkard and Thorkild Sorensen’s study of 540 adults who’d been adopted young. Conclusion: “a clear relation between the body-mass index of biologic parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that genetic influences are important determinants of body fatness .. there was no relation between the body mass index of adoptive parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that childhood family environment alone has little or no effect.” (Emphasis mine.)

Stunkard and others also studied identical twins raised apart, and fraternal twins raised together. Results: “Almost all of the differences in weight between members of a population are due to genetic differences.”

But what if a child is super-duper fat? Surely governmental intervention is warranted then? Consider Exhibit D, Anamarie Regino:

When she was 3, the Albuquerque girl was taken from her parents in what “Obesity Myth” author Paul Campos succinctly summed up as “a chilling tale of what can happen when people of modest means and social status find themselves, through no fault of their own, facing the full brunt of the prejudice that fuels the war on fat.”

Anamarie stacked on the weight — as well as the height, though this did not concern social workers and the government. Her parents were desperate to figure out why their 16-month-old daughter weighed 67 pounds. They took her to specialist after specialist. She was 130 pounds by the time she was 3. That’s when social workers stepped in, saying the Reginos couldn’t “handle” their daughter, and — of course — the government didn’t want her to “die.”

I remember seeing tales of Anamarie on TV, each filled with hushed horror at her weight. Like everyone else, I believed what I was told: that her parents were to blame. I didn’t realize the Regino family, the TV reporters, and me had all fallen victim to “moral panic.”

“There are moments when certain things become the focus of the society because they are believed to be a danger to the society and it is believed that if you focus on it you will be able to avoid or cure it,” Sander Gilman of Emory University told Kolata. Nailing it was Abigail Saguy, who said in Kolata’s “Rethinking Thin,” it’s not by chance that moral panic focuses on kids. “If you can play the child card or the youth card, you are more effective. People are worried about their children, and if you can play up those fears, you will get more mileage.”

Back to Anamarie. Per Campos, when the state seized her, there was no proof her health was in jeopardy; test after test had failed to detect actual health problems. The state also removed Anamarie from the hospital where her supposedly awful parents had admitted her, and into a foster home. And, despite the state’s claims she was being overfed, the Reginos had, in fact, been putting her on medically prescribed diets, one, of no more than 500 calories a day.

“That there could even be a discussion about whether the state ought to take a child away from her parents under these circumstances indicates how severely the topic of fat distorts public debate in America,” Campos said. “ … the whole idea that parental dietary practices might play a significant role in producing a 130-pound 3-year-old is absurd. … every bit as bizarre as the idea that Anamarie’s parents were damaging her health by forcing her to become twice as tall as other children her age.”

He should tell that to Dr. Ludwig, and anyone else who believes fat kids have bad or neglectful parents.

Think back to your last diet. Was it easy to lose weight? Did the weight loss last? Now, imagine your body was predisposed to fat in the first place. Then imagine being told on a daily basis, in countless ways, that you are Public Enemy No. 1 because you are fat. Add to that the scolds, politicians and doctors who suggest — with growing sincerity — that you are not fit to be a mother or father; that if you cared enough about your children, you’d shed the pounds, and do whatever it takes to make sure your children don’t make the same bad “lifestyle choices” as you did.

Imagine, on top of all this, living with the fear that the government will take away your children, should they reach a weight others find objectionable. Imagine being labeled a “child abuser” by a massive pack of illinformed bigots who are so ignorant that they think having a fat child is the same as starving a child. It is not. Pick a dietitian, any dietitian. They will tell you it is better to be overweight than underweight. Everyone has to eat. If a child’s not eating, he’s not living for very long. The risk is imminent. That is not the case with a fat child.

Now imagine this: What if one of your children was fat…but the other two were thin? Do you think people could credibly support the idea that your fat kid means you are a bad, stupid, abusive parent? That you are overfeeding one of your children, and teaching him to be sedentary, while loading the other two up with veggies, fruits and lots of fiber before they run their daily marathons? Of course not! The kids in one household eat pretty much the same. And if you’re wondering how a fat kid can have thin siblings, consider what a doctor told me: “Even sisters have different genes.”

We are being held hostage by an assumption so strong that it substitutes for reality and reason. It’s the same assumption that led New Mexico to simply state Anamarie Regino was at risk of heart failure, with no evidence other than her weight — and in defiance of what evidence existed.

It’s why we continue to diet, when there are comparatively few real successes in a 2,000-plus year history of reducing. It’s why we keep believing falsehoods about body size. We are doomed to repeat history. And we will, until we at last divorce weight from morality.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.