We Don't Need More Stigma for Overweight Kids

Daniel Engber pushes back on the absurd notion that the problem with fat kids is that as a society, we haven't made it clear how disgusting we find them:

This idea--that we've gone soft in more ways than one--has come up again and again in Slate's effort to crowdsource a remedy for overweight children. "Schools should actively stigmatize being fat," writes one member of the Hive; "few things are more terrifying to a kid than being an outcast." Another declares, "We need to stop telling children to 'love themselves the way they are.'" A third suggests that the government take custody of any child with obese parents, as a way to "get both parents and children motivated to exercise and eat healthy."

These proposals are so plainly ill-advised, so thoroughly at odds with the available evidence on the causes of obesity, and so utterly detrimental to the welfare of our children, that I can only indulge in the fantasy that they're meant as satire. Let's be realistic, though: They're not. And their presence in the Hive--among many other suggestions, to be sure--reflects the danger of equating a child's health with the shape of his body.

Obviously, these suggestions are quite extreme, and absurd--as Engber points out, it's not as if kids started getting fatter because our society became so much more welcoming of body fat.  But some variant of it is very common when we discuss "education" as a way to combat obesity (childhood or otherwise).  The problem is not that overweight people are unaware that society would be nicer to them if they would eat less and get thinner.  And even quite young children know which foods are fattening--which is how they know to torment fat kids they catch eating them.

When you emphasize that "obesity" is a huge social problem, what you are saying, whether you want to or not, is that fat people are a huge social problem.  I'm not sure that's a message you want to make extra-sure to send to kids who are already getting quite a lot of negative messages from their peers.  And I've seen little compelling evidence that you can make people substantially thinner by telling them how awful it is to be fat.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be striving for much healthier school lunches and more exercise in the day.  But it seems to me that we frequently mix "healthy" up with "thin".  Most people who switch to eating an actual healthy diet--little processed food, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, less salt and sugar--won't end up thin.  Most people who exercise won't lose much, if any weight without calorie restriction.  And most people who try to restrict their calories below what their body wants fail over the long term--eventually, their appetite wins.  Maybe it's true that it really is different if you can get to kids before they get fat.  But the best evidence so far seems to show at best small improvement.

If you tie up being thin with health--or with having good self-control--I think you're actually hurting your chances of persuading kids to adopt healthier lifestyles.  If the real goal is to be thin, as I'd say it mostly is when people talk about getting "healthy", then people who don't achieve the weight they want are going to give up on the healthy part.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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