Proud2Bme | Presumed Guilty: The Public’s Perception of Childhood Obesity

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Presumed Guilty: The Public’s Perception of Childhood Obesity

By Bailey Webber--They are mocked by their peers, scolded by their parents, lectured by doctors, and even judged by their government. Again and again, overweight kids are in the line of fire.  The message is clear, “If you are overweight, you have done something wrong. It’s your fault.”  But, is it really?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this while filming the documentary The Student Body, which is about the government's attempt to solve childhood obesity through state mandated “fat letters" based on BMI (Body Mass Index).  Over the past three years I’ve been immersed in this issue, speaking with medical experts, government officials, parents and student all across the country. This has led me to a deeper understanding of this complicated issue. But it has also led me to a particular thought that keeps me up at night.  

What if our concept of the cause of obesity in some kids is wrong?  What if for those kids, it’s not as simple as poor diet and exercise?  What if there are other forces at play, outside of the control of the child, that are just as impactful?  If this is the case, then we can also assume that the treatment is doomed to fail too, which seems to be happening so much of the time.  Worse yet, the child who is already struggling with obesity, now must deal the judgment, even punishment, that comes along with “doing something wrong.”

Some of the professionals I’ve interviewed seem to be wondering the same thing.  For instance, one physician and university professor suspects there is a disease process in the bodies of this new generation of kids, causing an abnormal weight issue.  She points out that this can even be seen in our most active students, our athletes.  But where is it coming from?  Could it be environmental?  Could it actually be something in our food?

Others who specialize in the field of nutrition and eating disorders have commented that we have to take into account the significant impact of genetics, economic issues and cultural influences. But if we have an attitude of treating all people with obesity the same way, addressing mostly diet and exercise, we are likely not to lose weight, but instead lose the battle! In fact, the past 50 years of this mindset has only caused us to become a more obese and unhealthy nation.

And of all the possibilities mentioned, none of them are within the control of the overweight child.  Still, our lawmakers (like the general public) are only hyper-focused on BMI and blaming the child for their poor diet and exercise when they have no idea of the individuals’ lifestyles. Similar to the way we may have treated kids who suffered from dyslexia, prior to understanding that there was such a thing, I wonder if a deeper understanding of obesity in the future will look the same way.  

As a society, we've come a long way in our understanding of other diseases and disorders.  Look at how we once treated people with learning disabilities, depression, and other diseases, prior to knowing that they even existed. Today, with more science and understanding, we have changed our attitudes and our methods of treatment. So, my question is, will obesity be the same way?  Experts I've talked to say that the science and research has come a long way in understanding this disease.  And yet the public recognition, understanding and perception of those suffering from obesity is lagging behind the science.

My hope is that in the near future, people will finally change their perception about the causes of obesity, stop pointing a judging finger at the kids who suffer from this disease and encourage more research into developing better cures.  Because, after all this time of shaming and blaming… what if we were wrong?

About this blogger: Bailey Webber is a student investigative journalist, writer and co-director of The Student Body - an inspiring new film being released this spring that explores the controversial issue of government mandated BMI testing of students and the ensuing 'Fat Letters'. 

For more on BMI, fat-shaming, and education:

Weighing Kids at School: Bad Idea

Bryn Mawr's BMI Backlash

Body Peace of Body Wars: Seventeen's BMI Calculator Says Underweight is "Healthy"

Victory! Seventeen Removes BMI Calculator from Its Website

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