Weigh This Instead!

Life After Emotional & Binge Eating

Dear Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama has launched her new initiative, focusing attention on the issue of “childhood obesity.”  This imagined letter to Mrs. Obama, written by therapist and author Judith Matz, expresses her concern about the direction of the campaign.  As you read this blog entry think about your own experiences as a child around issues of weight.  And, think about your own children – or children who you know – and what their experiences are of their own bodies.  Our wish is for all children to have access to a healthy lifestyle, without stigmatizing larger children along the way.

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As I was driving home from work a couple of months ago, I turned on the radio and caught the end of a story about Michelle Obama. She had given a speech that included her intention to launch a campaign to prevent childhood obesity, using a quote that suggested this generation of children would live shorter lives than their parents.

Immediately, I went into high alert and promised myself that I would at least write a letter explaining my point of view and my expertise in this area. But the holidays, family, and all of the other daily demands that can interfere with the best of intentions distracted me. When President Obama announced his wife’s initiative during the State of the Union address, I felt more saddened than surprised by what lay ahead.

I have the greatest respect for Mrs. Obama and have no doubt that she passionately believes in her mission. I think that her focus on weight and weight loss only goes to show how our culture normalizes the beliefs that you must be thin to be healthy, and that through changes in eating patterns – usually in the form of dieting – everyone can achieve a smaller body size. If this is what you believe, then a campaign that focuses on childhood obesity makes sense.

What I would give to meet Michelle at a local Starbucks for a cup of coffee and conversation! As I have with so many friends and colleagues, who also held similar views, I’d talk with her about what I’ve learned in my work with clients over the years, and how the science now supports these ideas.

I’d tell Michelle how wonderful it’s been to see her growing vegetables at the White House with children who can now appreciate the beauty of nature and the taste of fresh foods. I’d agree that making fruits and vegetables accessible and affordable for all children is a goal that would improve the quality of our children’s health. I’d applaud efforts to make physical education available on a daily basis – for children of all sizes – in our schools. I’d encourage her to figure out ways for organizations to support families so that all children have access to all kinds of activities, rather than spending hours in front of the TV (although sometimes, just chilling out in front of the TV after a demanding day at school is the perfect activity – just ask my children!)

Then I’d ask Michelle to take weight out of the equation. After all, good health is much broader than a number on the scale. I’d point out to her that there are thin children who are unhealthy, and ask if she is aware of girls who purge or use dangerous diet products to keep their weight low. I’d ask her if she knows that there are children who fall in the higher BMI categories who eat fruits and vegetables every day, are physically active, and come from a family where their genetic inheritance means a larger body size.

I’d also have to respectfully wonder if she’s familiar with the multitude of studies that challenge the notion of thin as most healthy. Katherine Flegal of the Centers for Disease Control released her findings in 2005 that showed no difference in death rates for people in the overweight and lower end of the obesity categories. In fact, she concluded that only people at either extreme – very large or very thin – had increased risk, with those who are the thinnest carrying the most risk. Two other long-term studies came out this past year – one from Canada and one from Japan – that also confirmed people in the “overweight” category of BMI actually live the longest lives.

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