TV's focus on childhood obesity hits home

TV's focus on childhood obesity hits home
A still from "The Weight of the Nation." (Visko Hatfield / HBO)

I was a pioneer of childhood obesity.

By the time I was a junior in high school, I weighed more than 200 pounds. I was a fat kid before being a fat kid made you the topic of a national conversation and the first lady's pet project, back when Gatorade still tasted gross and no one knew how many calories there were in anything.


For most of my childhood, I was the only fat girl in my class — I can still name the other two fat girls in my grade. Now, fat kids fill the playground and the high school bleachers, including a whole new breed of fat girl who wears skin tight jeans and mid-riffs and dares anyone to say anything. Seeing them, I must admit I am torn between despair and envy.

I never expected to see my childhood reflected on television — overweight young characters are still rare even post-"Hairspray" — but there they are, my modern equivalents, on "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," "Too Fat for 15 and Fighting Back" and, most recently, HBO's multi-pronged documentary "The Weight of the Nation," all part of a collective attempt to address America's childhood obesity epidemic.

According to these shows, and many reports in other media, the root system of this crisis is insidious and widespread. A deluge of cheap junk food, the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup and other sugars, the absence of physical education in schools, outrageous marketing aimed at children, cost-cutting in school cafeterias — all make it far too easy for children to eat themselves sick.

As a former obese child who fights all these forces to remain a normal-sized adult, I applaud every show, every article, every effort. But here is what I know about being a fat kid: It is at least as much about your head as it is about what you put in your mouth. Yes indeed, bad foods are cheaper and more seductive than healthful foods, and we need to call a cease-fire on the endless barrage of junk kids face. But it is also true that fat kids eat differently than non-fat kids, something that is rarely discussed.

It takes a lot of hard, dedicated eating for a 16-year-old girl to weigh 200-plus pounds, even with the aid of Pringles and a genetic inclination. I became obese by eating pretty much all the time; I regularly ate until it hurt. This required an elaborate, and often exhausting, set of rationalizations, delusions and outright lies. As in: "Well, I'm going to eat all of this Halloween candy eventually so it might as well be in the next two hours." As in: "I don't understand why I'm so heavy when all of my friends eat as much as I do and they're not heavy."

Here is what I also know about being a fat kid: Your thighs chafe, your joints ache and your stomach churns; you can't run or do the monkey bars; people say very mean things and at some level you always hate yourself. But you keep eating anyway.

I did not eat like a fat kid because the television told me to, or because the boxes were pretty, or because there were no apples in my house. I ate that way because I was afraid, because I was angry, because I often felt alone and hopeless. I ate because the taste and feel of the food in my mouth distracted me from the grim rattle of my own thoughts and the often out-of-control things that were happening around me, including my ballooning self.

In many ways, it's easier to be a fat kid these days. When I was young the only place I could find clothes was the Chubby section of the Sears catalog; now there are lots of pretty clothes, and though the standard of feminine beauty remains in the single digits, the self-esteem movement and Oprah have encouraged us to love ourselves no matter what our size.

But as the (very brave) children participating in the various shows can, and do, tell you, obesity and self-esteem are pretty much mutually exclusive. Many of these kids eat for the same reasons I ate, feel trapped in the same cycle of shame and denial that I did. Unraveling the stories they tell themselves about why they are doing this is just as important as limiting the high fructose corn syrup and introducing them to quinoa.

Kids today are, perhaps, even more confused than I was. During the uproar over anorexia and girls who go on diets at 5, the word "fat" itself has been relegated to hate speech. In our laudable effort to end bullying and build self-esteem, Americans decided that weight was a cultural issue, that it isn't your pounds that matter but how you feel about yourself.

Which is absolutely true as far as it goes. And as far as it goes should be the limits of the medically recommended weight for your height and age. No child should be encouraged to diet themselves to a Hollywood template but neither should she, or he, be encouraged to accept being 40 pounds overweight.