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Sun, 21 Feb 2010
As everyone has probably heard by now, Michelle Obama is starting a crusade against childhood obesity. This crusade is disastrously wrong. Unless it is changed or stopped, it will likely cause untold harm to children.
Kate Harding's article on the subject in Salon.com, and this letter by a group of health and nutrition professionals, tell exactly what is wrong, scientifically and socially, with Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" crusade. I don't really need to say more. Indeed, part of what I am going say here will overlap with what those authors said. However, I want to talk louder about it. Why? Because "Let's Move" isn't just wrong; it's desperately wrong.
I am not saying that the proposed health measures in "Let's Move" are all bad. Some of these ideas are good. However, as Harding clearly points out, the campaign's emphasis on "obesity" instead of on good health for all will lead to problems. My guess is that it will lead to disaster.
You cannot generalize much about heavy children. Some of them have unhealthy habits, just as some thinner children do. However, a high body weight in children is not always the result of bad habits. Some children are naturally heavier than average. It is sheer folly to assume automatically that a child's high body weight must be a matter of overeating or laziness. This assumption is especially silly when "obesity" is defined by BMI, which (as Harding points out) is an undependable measure that ignores many individual differences. 
Michelle Obama, like many other Americans, needs to get used to a simple fact: some people are naturally heavier than others. Plus-sized people are not pathological cases or problem people just because of this single personal trait.
American society contains many different kinds of diversity. Thoughtful people usually respect diversity. Yet as a society, we seem to be too stupid to realize that there is such a thing as diversity of weight. Given the genetic variability of the human body, how could there fail to be a normal diversity of fat content, BMI, and weight? We seem to think that slight variations in weight are acceptable, but that any large difference on the high side is a crime.
The most disastrous problem with "Let's Move" is that it will lead to more cruelty against large-sized children. Harding points this out clearly; she recognizes that this initiative is likely to increase discrimination (including bullying) against large children. Here I'd like to go further in pointing out how monstrous the results of "Let's Move" could be. In our society, fat children suffer tremendous bullying and teasing. As a schoolchild I witnessed many vicious acts - including a child being pushed off the top of a piece of climbing equipment, and taking a long fall to the ground, for being too fat. (Who did this? His fellow kindergarteners. American children learn fat hatred at a young age.) Now imagine some kids doing an act like that or worse, and then giving the teacher the excuse that "the President's wife says kids shouldn't be fat." If "Let's Move" isn't stopped or seriously altered, such things are bound to happen.
According to a quote in Harding's article, Mrs. Obama mentioned the problems of "teasing and bullying" that large-sized children face. Doesn't Mrs. Obama realize what her crusade really will do to large-sized children? As Harding's article points out, "Let's Move" portrays large children as a problem to be eliminated, and this portrayal can contribute to prejudice. When you think about it, how could the initiative not trigger bullying? Telling the school bullies that fat kids are a problem could fan the flames of schoolyard violence beyond anything seen today.
Harding points out, correctly, that "it's not ideal" to try to stop the bullying of fat children by getting the children to change instead of by fighting the discrimination. I'd like to add that it's more than just non-ideal - it's downright evil. If we were talking about any other oppressed group besides fat people, the idea of making the people look different instead of fighting the prejudice would be condemned. Yet Mrs. Obama's approach to large-sized children plays into this bigoted mindset.
One can only guess that the First Lady has been influenced by the widespread but wrong beliefs that only thin people are normal and that fatness is a matter of bad personal behavior. In reality, high body weight has a strong genetic component, and does not always equal bad health. The fact that some thin people gain weight by overeating or being inactive does not imply that all fat people get fat that way. For many children, their natural weight is simply heavier than what the obesity warriors will accept. These children are not to blame for being "fat" - and neither are their parents.
Labeling and hounding children for their weight differences will not lead to anything positive. The fact that some fat people have been able to lose weight - usually only temporarily, or else because they are genetically cut out to be thin - does not change this. It is time to face reality: weight diversity is a part of normal life.
The list of links near the end of this article will provide some alternative ways to think about fat people. The truth is different from what you might have been told. Prejudices run deep in our society. Even doctors and nurses can have them.
The main point of Harding's article is that Mrs. Obama should campaign for good health for all, instead of against "obesity." Harding is exactly right about this. Campaigning for good health is not the same as fighting against the existence of fat children! It is immoral and cruel to start a crusade against large-sized children in the name of "health."
Michelle Obama's campaign against the bogeyman of childhood obesity is sure to backfire. Sadly, this campaign will only increase anti-fat hatred - a hatred that has roots in shallow ideals of beauty, in class prejudice, and even in racism. 
Mrs. Obama, for the sake of America and of human dignity, don't persecute the fat kids!
A Few Links to Read and Think AboutThe letter that I mentioned early in this post
ASDAH - the professional organization that issued that letter
NAAFA - a civil rights organization for people of size
ISAA - an organization working against size discrimination
 On the poorness of BMI as a measure of health, see these references:
 See Paul Campos, The Obesity Myth (New York, Gotham Books, 2004), regarding the sources of anti-fat prejudice.
Minor update 4/28/2010
posted at: 23:30 | path: /political | persistent link to this entry
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