x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

On behalf of fat children everywhere, lighten up a little

Telling someone they are fat is not really about health at all. It's about creating an underclass of people who can be readily identified, and needlessly judged.

A woman with a BMI well into the morbidly obese range should be the last person permitted to comment on Wednesday's article, Ministry reads schools the diet act.

But here I am, fuelled by dismay, bashing out words as fast as my fat fingers will go.

It isn't the school feeding programme that has my chubby cheeks flush with anger. In fact, let me be the first to applaud an excellent move towards better eating habits in schools.

What's got me in a flap then? Two things. The first is that lessons in nutrition are not yet part of the national curriculum. Of all the things to learn in school, should "how to feed yourself" not be lesson one?

The second - and here's where I really get going - is the assertion by one principal that nutrition lessons would be nice, but (I'm paraphrasing) we already have a programme where we take all the fat kids aside and tell them to eat more fruit.

If you're thin, it might not be clear why this made me sick to the bottom of my ample belly. I'll explain.

Last week, I watched a video in which Jennifer Livingston, news anchor for the US television station WKBT, responds to a letter of complaint she received. The smug missive suggests Mrs Livingston should be ashamed of the example she's setting for children by continuing to work as a portly news presenter.

"To the person who wrote that letter," Mrs Livingston says, "you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on a scale."

I'm going to put my cards on the table at this point and admit: I was inclined to agree with the nasty-letter writer when I first watched that video.

Despite being just as large as Mrs Livingston, I dejectedly thought: "He's right, really. We should lose weight. We are bad examples for young people."

Then I clicked on a link below the video that took me to the blog of Michelle Allison, who has a Dietitians of Canada-accredited bachelor's degree in nutrition. Oh, and she's fat.

In response to the video, she wrote something I've never had the wherewithal to piece together in my own brain.

Telling someone they are fat, she said, "is not really about health at all. It's about making sure there is always an underclass of people who can be readily identified, and that identity used as the foundation on which to prop up hackneyed stereotypes and value judgments (lazy, smelly, gluttonous, stupid, low-class), which ultimately results in an entire group of people being devalued as human beings."

"What's that now?" my inner skinny girl screeched. "Empty rationalisations for bad eating habits?"

But Ms Allison continued: "The constant pressure and questioning and needling and harassment fat people get from family, friends, coworkers, neighbours, and perfect strangers all combines to create stigma, and that stigma materially hurts people's health."

Among the many resources to back up her claims was a research paper from the American Journal of Public Health, funded by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Obesity Stigma by Rebecca M Puhl, PhD, and Chelsea A Heuer, MPH, gathered more than 100 scientific studies on obesity to support their conclusion that: "Weight stigma is not a beneficial public health tool for reducing obesity or improving health.

"Rather, stigmatisation of obese individuals poses serious risks to their psychological and physical health."

When I imagine the trauma and shame that must accompany being singled out at school and told to slim down, I feel physically ill.

Had someone done that to me as a child, I'd be 100 kilograms heavier for all the ice cream I'd have eaten to repress the memory. On behalf of fat children everywhere, please believe me when I say: that approach is not going to work. Stop it.

Secondly, being slender is not a hall pass to health. That kid with a cracking metabolism who eats junk food all day and never gains a gram? Doesn't he also deserve to learn about the mental and physical benefits of a balanced diet rich in whole foods, grains and protein?

And so, out of steam, I have one final word for chubby kids: your weight does not define your worth. Don't let anyone bully you into believing you'd be a better person if you lost a kilogram or 10 - not even your principal.

 

cmercer@thenational.ae