Saturday, January 20, 2007

Fat Is a Loaded Word

When the term “childhood obesity” began to make headlines several years ago, I predicted a backlash.

In the late 1990s, I’d started to see some alarming numbers: 80 percent of 10-year-olds in the U.S. were afraid of getting fat. Forty-two percent of elementary school students, between first and third grade, wanted to be thinner. A few years ago, in the book The Adonis Complex I read that a majority of boys said they’d rather look good than be good at sports.

It was obvious to me that some kids, who were not overweight, would hear the talk about childhood obesity and overreact. I thought this could result in even more kids obsessing over their eating habits and how they looked.

We are a nation that needs to address our growing problem with unhealthy weight. But we better think before we talk to kids about it. Wielding thoughtless warnings about getting fat could create a whole new set of problems.

Yesterday’s New York Times reports that some schools are measuring students’ body mass index and stating kids’ scores in letters to parents. Children as young as second graders are refusing to eat, thinking high scores mean they’re fat.

Kids who do weigh too much for their height, the article says, go on the defensive. They pick on skinny kids to deflect attention from themselves.

In this national effort to help kids achieve a healthy weight – and thus prevent disease and early death – it’s essential that parents choose the words they use to talk about weight wisely.

I’ve talked with Dr. Roberto Olivardia, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and co-author of The Adonis Complex about how families can have these important but often touchy conversations with kids. “Fat is such a loaded word,” he says. “When we hear it, we don’t just think overweight. There are cultural implications for what ‘fat’ means: lazy, unattractive. So, when parents talk with their children, they need to be aware that the word carries those terms with it.”

Parents need to emphasize not weight but physical strength and health. Parents can say, “Your weight affects your health. It’s important to be at a healthy weight to be a healthy person.” Parents can explain that one risk of being overweight is type II diabetes. As more young people reach an unhealthy weight, more develop this serious health condition. It was seen mostly in adults until recently.

Type II diabetes affects the body’s ability to use sugar. Some people who have the condition have to take insulin shots every day to get the level of sugar in their body back to where it should be. Diabetes can also affect your vision and your heart.

Explaining this could help kids learn that there is a direct relationship between the food they put in their mouths and the body’s response.

Any conversation about being strong and healthy also needs to mention the importance of getting a reasonable amount of exercise every day.

Dr. Olivardia suggests that parents build their children’s self-esteem in these conversations by saying, “I’m proud of you. I love you.” Acknowledge kids’ strengths, not their looks. “You have a great personality.” “You’re funny!” Or, “You’re great on the soccer field.” “You’re a great math student.” Parents often assume children know their strengths. Kids like to hear their parents spell them out.

Some of Dr. Olivardia’s young anorexic patients started with a diet, and it spiraled out of control. “Their intention was just to lose a few pounds at first, because they thought they were overweight, or someone said, ‘You’d look better if you were 10 pounds lighter.’ Then they couldn’t stop.”

So, choose your words carefully when talking about weight: emphasize health; point out how being strong and healthy helps people do the things they love; and value character more than appearance.

Resources
The Power of Girls: Inside and Out
Steroids: True Stories Hosted by Curt Schilling
Words Can Work: When Talking About Steroids

Related Issues and Answers columns
Anorexia in boys
Anorexia in girls
Bulimia
Steroids: A story of addiction

Related columns for young people

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