The recent U.S. Senate decision to pass a resolution naming September as "National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month," gives this former fat kid much reason to pause and question. Hailed by many as a significant step forward, there are many out there who have good reason for concern. As I and any other person who has lived childhood as a fat person knows, being singled out and made to feel bad about oneself, erodes self-esteem and promotes inner criticism -- two ingredients that harm far more than they could ever help.
The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) results urges all of us to caution, encouraging us to take a less divisive and more positive approach to childhood physical and mental health. Their concern is that the process of singling out fat children further stigmatizes kids that are already marginalized. Citing research findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association and Lancet, a British medical journal, they suggest that despite significant cost in time and resources, there is little evidence that the current efforts focused on childhood obesity have any positive effect on children's health and well-being. ASDAH, A Chance to Heal, and many other groups and individuals, worry that the well intended efforts of mandatory screening, reporting of children's BMI (Body Mass Index), banning of junk food in school cafeterias and promotional campaigns emphasizing the dangers of excess weight, are actually doing more harm than good.
As I know from my over 30 years as a psychotherapist with expertise in eating disorder treatment and prevention, worry over weight, shape and appearance puts one at risk for developing unhealthy weight control practices and strengthens negative body image. Chevese Turner, founder and CEO of The Binge Eating Disorder Association says that "we have seen evidence that this sort of intervention sets children ever earlier on the road to yo-yo dieting, poor body satisfaction, low self-esteem and disordered eating."
I have often wondered how I was spared from developing an eating disorder. As a fat kid needing to shop in the "chubby department" (yes, that's what it was called in the late 50's and 60's) I knew that I was different from my friends. I also knew that it was painful for my mother (a fashionista in her day) to see her daughter have few clothing options to select from -- yet she kept her mouth zipped and never said a disparaging word. As a mother of two grown daughters and a therapist specializing in boosting women's self-esteem and leadership, I know that my mother's willingness to hold her frustration in check and refrain from expressing criticism, saved me.
I also know that I was most fortunate in that I didn't have to endure the humiliation of someone calling out my weight for all of my peers to hear, and that I was protected from experiencing the shame of a letter sent home proclaiming me with an official stamp, confirming my status as "unacceptable." I was left to my own internal voices, none of them armed with the hurtful words of people who mattered to me.
Concerns about obesity are real, as are concerns about eating disorders. What I know from arming people with the tools to change their lives, is that shaming children never helps. Emotional humiliation causes human beings (child and adult alike) to freeze up internally, shut down self-compassion and run for whatever substance or behavior will help us numb out. Now that we do have a National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, let's use it to think outside of the box and find better ways to empower our kids and families.