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Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat-Camper Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, and How Parents Can (and Can't) Helpby Abby Ellin
I'm not a fat kid anymore, but I've remained almost fanatically interested in the issues that arise around food, weight, and families. I've talked to hundreds of fat kids and former fat kids; I've talked to the parents of fat kids and dozens of experts and professionals who treat fat kids. And now that childhood obesity has been deemed a cultural crisis there are plenty of books and magazine articles being published on these subjects, which I read religiously. I'm always curious to see whether anyone has figured out yet how to deal with weight issues better than my family dealt with mine. The answer, not surprisingly, is a resounding no. Most of the books preach a fitness and nutrition philosophy, which is pretty much the same type of message my mother and grandmother tried unsuccessfully to impart to me. But the experts are oddly mute when it comes to the subject of how exactly to implement their wisdom and what to do when your kid sabotages or rebels against or simply isn't interested in the suggestions; or tries to get thin but tires of the healthy new regime after their weeks of effort yield few tangible results; or complains of being hungry and miserable; or hates you thoroughly for even mentioning the subject of weight, thereby making his or her miserable existence even more miserable. What these books do seem to take for granted, though, is that parents have got to do something, because your kid's weight is clearly your problem.
Michael Fumento, author of the book Fat of the Land (Viking, 1997), says out loud in a 1997 interview in Salon what many people seem to think: "Kids live basically in a dictatorship while they are in their parents' home. When a kid is grossly fat, that is the parents' fault."
Many parents do feel responsible—even when they've been trying for years to help their kids lose weight. "Your anxiety is that you have ruined the child forever or that they will be taken away from you because you've made them fat," says Lisa Williams, the mother of fourteen-year-old Emily, who weighs 250 pounds. Williams has been shuttling her daughter to nutritionists, psychologists, endocrinologists, support group meetings, and weight-loss camps for the last five years. "I'm worried about seeing her alienated, alone, unloved, made fun of, deprived of opportunities. I probably would calm down a great deal if Emily grows up and finds love and a wonderful partner and actually likes what she does and is basically happy, even if she never gets as thin as she should be. But when I see her using food in a compulsive way to escape feelings and to pad herself against the horrors of life, it's heartbreaking."
Williams might find it reassuring to know that even so-called experts have difficulty when it comes to their own kids and food. (One-time Pumping Iron guru Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter has extra meat on her bones, though his wife seems to be dissolving before our eyes.) Anne M. Fletcher is a registered dietician and the author of the terrific Thin for Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), as well as a forthcoming book on teens who have successfully lost weight. She has won a number of awards and knows more about the subject of dieting and healthy eating (and sobriety, for that matter) than almost anyone I know—and yet her oldest son, who is now twenty-one, was sixty pounds heavier as a teenager. "It was very difficult and embarrassing," she admits. "I'm supposed to be this expert and here's my fat kid." Eventually he did lose weight, but it took time. "He needed to find his own solution," she says.
Most kids are not especially thrilled with their parents' efforts to help them deal with their weight. "Adults think they know more about how I feel than I do," says thirteen-year-old Caitlin Armstrong, who weighs 185 pounds. "They really don't know what's going on inside an overweight child's head."
"One time I said something mean to my father—I don't remember what—and he said to me, ‘Well, at least I don't hide candy in my sock drawer,'" recalls Danielle Webber, thirteen, who recently lost twenty pounds. "That really hurt. I could not believe my father said that to me. I stood up and walked away from the kitchen table."
"Most people don't get it," says Bryan Morris, sixteen, who once weighed 220 pounds and is now about 190. "Obesity is not a disease, it's more of a disorder or an addiction. And yet people don't deal with it with enough sensitivity. The more aware the world is of problems—not just obesity—the worse we deal with them. For example, if we tell parents ‘Hey, watch out—obesity is a huge problem and make sure it doesn't happen to your kid,' parents are going to strike back. But when you do whatever you can to prevent a problem, at the same time you're doing your best to cause it." In other words, adolescent logic dictates that the more parents freak out about their children's weight and the more they bug them about it, the more their kids are going to want to rebel.
If kids react that way to their parents' concern, imagine how they respond to the messages they get from the world. Fat hysteria has swept the nation, with talk of taxes on foods that are high in sugar and fat, and lawsuits against fast food companies. You can't go anywhere without hearing that childhood obesity is near epic proportions, an epidemic (as if fat could be transmitted from one person to the other through the sheer force of our cultural anxiety), a national health risk, a code orange of fat young people. Nearly every health organization and government agency from the American Cancer Society to the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued guidelines for preventing obesity, mostly through diet and exercise. The mission of the new millennium seems clear: Help the fat kids, help the fat kids!
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