Apodaca: Respect, kindness will do more than banning word 'fat'

A lot of nonsense gets spewed around the blogosphere and on TV "news" shows, where talking heads have lots of air space to fill with mindless blather. Controversies are manufactured and outrage is overplayed to manipulate audiences.

That makes it easy to dismiss a recent media-manufactured tizzy over a California mom's announcement that she had banned the word "fat" from her daughters' vocabulary.

But as irritating and insulting to our intelligence as these minor media obsessions can be, they sometimes succeed in attracting attention because they hit us in a soft spot. They speak to our own insecurities, inhibitions and sometimes, yes, even our pain.

And so amid the faux indignation over whether the "F" word is a "bad" word, we might actually have an opportunity for some real insight about how we view our own and others' bodies.

The kerfuffle began when author and comedian Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, who also writes a parenting blog, said she outlawed the word "fat" after one of her daughters was told at summer camp that drinking soda would give her a fat tummy.

"I was horrified," Wilder-Taylor reportedly told ABCNews.com. "They are too young to be thinking about dieting or whether they are too fat or too thin."

The announcement sparked a predictable backlash from critics who derided this decision as an example of extreme helicopter parenting and political correctness. It prompted supporters to bemoan the body-image pressures on young people today, while others saw it as an opportunity to talk about the lack of civility in our society. Some responders said they had barred other words in their homes, including "stupid" and "shut up."

ABC assembled a panel of svelte, toned commentators to discuss the sensitive subject with an "expert." News outlets across the country picked up the story. And Wilder-Taylor, who started it all, probably sat back and relished all the publicity.

It's interesting that this tempest comes at a time when other topics relating to Americans' weight issues have been prominent in the news. Just last month, the American Medical Assn. for the first time officially designated obesity as a disease that requires medical treatment and prevention efforts.

The AMA's decision, though not technically binding, was seen by many as an important step in the evolution of our thinking regarding obesity, just as we have over time developed new ways of looking at other health issues such as alcoholism and addiction.

The issue of Americans struggling with weight problems also got a fresh look when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie revealed recently that he had undergone weight-loss surgery. Although comedians used the announcement as an opportunity to unleash a new round of fat jokes, Christie's revelation also spawned some informative discussions about the potential risks and rewards of such a drastic method of treating obesity.

Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz recently used the sad occasion of actor James Gandolfini's death after a major heart attack to write in Time magazine about the dangers of excess belly fat. Rather than lecturing, he addressed the topic in a sensitive, thoughtful way that emphasized the need to treat weight gain as a serious medical issue. He noted, for example, that stress can play a role by essentially tricking the body into releasing appetite-stimulating hormones.

All of which makes Wilder-Taylor's point, though a bit clunky in the delivery, worth considering. I'm not convinced that banning words outright is the way to go, but we do need to educate our kids about healthy eating habits and exercise, while at the same time help them establish comfort and confidence in their own bodies.

It's worth noting that growing up in beautiful Southern California can be especially hard on kids' self-esteem when they don't live up to — as few of us do — the stereotype of a buff swimsuit model body. A Newport Beach psychologist once told me that the majority of her teenage patients came to her suffering from some kind of eating disorder.

The other issue at play here — that using the word "fat," whether to describe ourselves or others, is just not nice — might seem rather obvious. But focusing attention on specific words opens parents up to criticism that they're raising a generation of kids who are too soft and sheltered to make it in the real world. Life is tough, some people argue, so it's best not to shield children from harsh realities like trash-talking on the playground.

But what's wrong with trying to teach kids to treat others, and themselves, with respect, dignity and that most undervalued of all qualities, kindness?

We're pretty much all guilty of offensive statements from time to time, and we often don't fully realize the hurt we've inflicted until after the fact. We parents also know that important lessons bear repeating: A misguided remark by a camp counselor would seem a good opportunity to discuss with kids whether the thought expressed was accurate or appropriate.

More important, though, is remembering that the most powerful messages are those delivered without words. Making certain words taboo might feel satisfying, but it won't matter much if we don't show our kids that we're comfortable in our own skin and that we care far more about character than calorie counts.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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