We need a softer touch when addressing the “obesity epidemic” among children and teens in the U.S., one focusing on gaining some “good” rather than eliminating something “bad.”
Efforts by the government, doctors, parents and high-profile advocates like Michelle Obama to reduce child/adolescent obesity have legitimate motivations; for example, concerns about its long-term health complications, like diabetes and heart disease, and their associated health care costs. Yet, even a well-intentioned focus on how problematic obesity is can be counterproductive, not because its risks are imaginary but because how all of the talk about these risks is perceived by obese youth. A better strategy is to frame our efforts as promoting wellness rather than fighting obesity.
Our message should be about wellness for all kids, not singling out and changing obese kids. Promoting exercise, nutrition and health maintenance should be the stated goals. To the extent that we can get more young people on the road to general wellness, we will likely see fewer obese youth. Even those youth who remain overweight will likely become healthier, which is the whole point of reducing obesity in the first place.
I came to this realization when my research on the social challenges of high school received ample media attention. Some vivid examples of this research involved obese teenagers, and many of them — plus adults who used to be obese teenagers — reached out to castigate me for denigrating them or to thank me for validating their experiences. One theme of their feedback was that the constant public discussion of obesity as a problem is taken very personally by people who are obese or just think that they are. They see it as a commentary about their own worth. Rather than being motivating, it makes them feel lousy, which might actually keep them from losing weight while also leading to other problems.
Social scientists like Kelly Brownell, Janet Latner, and Deborah Carr, have documented how the harsh judgment of obesity endures despite — or because of? — so many more people being overweight. Americans tend to view obesity pejoratively, equating it with personal failure. Consequently, obese youth are often bullied or isolated, and they have problems with depression and self-esteem. For many, such experiences are the worst part of being obese. Poignantly, thin people who used to be overweight may continue to see themselves through the same lens of devaluation, so that the mental state of obesity lingers even when the physical state disappears. This phenomenon is so common, in fact, that it even has a name: phantom fat.
Now consider our public agenda on obesity, with its prevailing message that obesity is a threat to society that needs to be vanquished, recently typified by an Epcot exhibit put on by Disney and Blue Cross Blue Shield that had thin heroes like Will Power fighting heavy villains like Lead Bottom. Scare tactics sometimes work, if, for example, a shaken teenager takes the public health information seriously and loses weight. The downside, though, is the psychological costs or the possibility that some teenagers will tune it out as “hater” talk. Another possibility is that obese teens might feel under attack and actually gain weight, given that eating is one way that people of all sizes cope with distress. Furthermore, getting the motivation to go to the gym is hard enough, never mind if one is demoralized by fat talk.
Our First Lady stressing physical activity, eating right and proposing to eliminate junk food adverting in schools is more what I am talking about than her pledge to reduce obesity per se. As one example, my research suggests that one effective way for overweight teenagers to avoid some of the social and psychological complications of obesity is to get involved in extracurricular activities, including sports — a venue in which they can connect with others, feel accomplished, and, hey, maybe lose weight too. Dollars dedicated to restoring school sports, therefore, will have more of an impact than fat-shaming ad campaigns.
Dr. Robert Crosnoe is professor of sociology and a research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of the Texas at Austin. He studies how youth development, health and education are connected to each other over time and how these connections factor into inequalities in American society.