Its been reported this week that in an effort to reduce levels of childhood obesity, the State Government has ordered health professionals to weigh and ‘scrutinise’ children that appear to be obese. From an visit to Accident and emergency to a weekly speech pathology visit, parents now need to be prepared for their child’s weight to become a talking point.
I cannot imagine who thought this was a good idea, but whomever it was is clearly not familiar with the scientific research regarding weight loss, which is a concern given the directive came from Health Minister Brad Hazzard. Putting aside the doomed use of BMI as a measure for determining obesity (and that is a whole article or so in that) here’s what we do know about obesity.
Shame is a terrible motivator at the best of times, but when it comes to body image its not only useless as a means of catalysing the activities that may lead to weight loss, it is actually counterproductive. Yep, shaming fat people makes them fatter. The research is divided on the exact mechanisms – as someone that spent a decade in the health and fitness industry my educated guess would be that shaming a person about their weight has two possible outcomes.
The first is that the object of shame will simply feel impotent to cause any change. Chances are, they know they are overweight, they have tried to do something about it and it either hasn’t worked or they’ve not reached their goal weight yet. Some supposedly well meaning, though realistically condescending person has made a comment that reiterates the fact that what they are doing isn’t working well enough for them to meet the standard that our incredibly fickle society sets, and they give up because what’s the point? I’ll never look like their idea of what’s right anyway.
Or, the person feels so ashamed that they DO something about it, and almost every option our society has to offer when it comes to weight loss is absolutely guaranteed not to work. They’ll pick one of any number of ‘products’ or ‘diets’ or ‘programs’ set up by people that are genetically blessed and have a financial incentive to fat shame. Low Carb. Boot Camp. Low Fat. Low Cal. Shakes. Supplements. Bars. Not only do these diets and products not work, they set you up for failure for the next time you try to lose weight. And they all manage to hide the fact that if a ‘diet’ actually worked, there would be no need to ever do it again. If you cannot sustain it (hint, you can’t) then you will fail and end up larger than when you started. And tragically, many will lament ‘if I just do low cal again…it worked last time!’
I digress. What the Health Department is suggesting is making people children ashamed of their bodies. When they go to the GP for a check up. When they have bronchitis and have to visit A&E. When they have a weekly appointment with a physio after a sprained ankle or a regular occupational therapy appointment. Remember this: no one wants to be obese, and no one wants to lose weight more than an obese person. This is infinitely more apparent when you are targeting parents of obese children. They know. They would do anything to change it. A casual weigh in at every possible opportunity absolutely will not help. The research shows us this is true.
In fact, the research shows us that this will likely lead to increases in disordered eating, (which could mean and increase illnesses like anorexia and bulimia AND higher incidences of obesity). Is this the governments plan? Has no one thought through this idea or taken a moment to check the validity of this hair brained scheme against the vast swathes of research devoted to this specific topic? If this is the case, I’m assuming they also haven’t looked at the research regarding the mental health outcomes of fat shaming? Is there a plan to counteract the increase in depression and anxiety this may very well cause? Have we thought to prepare our underfunded mental health services for children shamed within our health system?
I know what this policy’s supporters will say – this isn’t shaming, its education! Let me tell you its not. Whatever the intent, it will cause shame and it will not do anything to educate. People know about fresh fruit and vegetables. Even fat people! This kind of education does little to create change, and is likely to reinforce harmful stereotypes. 90% of Australian teenage girls are already ashamed of their bodies. Reinforcing unrealistic expectations earlier (and they are unrealistic – we know that the biggest contributing factor to obesity is genetics) and before children have a fully developed self esteem will do no one any good. These mixed messages must stop.
Worse, and perhaps most frighteningly this will impact the way people parent their children. Recent studies have shown that 30% of American children that are overweight have been teased by their parents. Well meaningly, (like this policy), I’m sure.
Let’s cut the bull. If you want to change something, change advertising and messaging that kids get. Encourage parents not to diet so children stop getting damaging messages about what is accepted. Change the culture we have around food and around being overweight. Fat people are not homogeneously lazy, uneducated or sad. 1 minute spent looking at the images used in articles like the one I’m writing right now will speak volumes.
The skinny people are all eating a salad or a yoghurt, or running, or playing with kids, and always with a smile, aren’t they? Because that’s how people eat salads. They have a ferocious grin on their face as if lettuce is in fact the new chocolate. The fat people always look defeated and are often chomping on a hamburger, correct? Because that’s what fat people do, right?
Or, here’s a really simple one – stop letting diet and product companies lie in their advertising! Garcinia Cambogia does not make you skinny. Ab crunchers do not reduce fat from your stomach. And low carb or low calorie diets are proven ubiquitously not to work. These messages matter. They may very well be making our kids fat.
So Mr Hazzard. Here’s a challenge to you. Prove to the NSW public that you care more about them than you do about political point scoring and poorly thought out ways to create policies that look like you are doing something meaningful. Prove that you actually give a damn about their health. Change advertising standards. Go after companies that profit so magnanimously from unmonitored false advertising. Stop shaming kids and their parents and let’s actually try and make a difference to the physical and mental health of our next generation.