Fat kids and self-esteem

The Globe and Mail is reporting that overweight children suffer from anxiety as early as six years of age. I have no doubt that this is true -- but I'm going to object to the framing of the results in the report. Let's take this, for example:

Furthermore, as these children progressed from kindergarten to Grade 3, their negative feelings grew more pronounced, lead researcher Sara Gable says.

“They actually get worse, so you think about the mental health implications of that,” says Dr. Gable, an associate professor of human development and family studies. “It just adds to the body of research that we already have telling us the cost of the lifestyle problems apparent in the U.S. population.”

The clear implication is that negative feelings and poor self-esteem are a natural consequence of a 'lifestyle problem' -- rather than the result of others' reactions to one's body, or of messages that one receives about one's body. That is, fat kids have it coming, right? The bullying and social exclusion that these kids experience is simply the natural, predictable result of piggish, lazy living. A critical reading of Dr. Gable's next comment further suggests that this is her stance:

Overweight girls were especially affected by their heavy stature, Dr. Gable adds. Bigger girls had trouble getting along with their peers and exhibited other negative behaviours that emerged after kindergarten, including a lack of self control.

If overweight girls are "especially affected by their heavy stature", could it be because they are constrained yet more than boys by social norms about physical attractiveness? Could it be, perhaps, that we continue to value girls according to how they look -- and that perhaps being chronically devalued because of 'heavy stature' simply hurts? The vague reference to "lack of self control" suggests a tired association between fat and behavior, and also seems to correlate fat with undisciplined, and therefore unfeminine, conduct.

These results doesn't say to me that kids need to be put on diets: they say to me that fat prejudice starts incredibly early, and that it has the power to erode the sense of self of the young and vulnerable. They say to me that we need to stop looking at fat as a definitive marker of a 'lifestyle problem', and start focusing instead on the more complex business of talking about good health practices at any size. And they say to me that we have a collective responsibility to treat people with decency even if they're fat.

In the interest of disclosure: I was a fat kid, and I'm a fat woman. And of course I struggle with self esteem. But I stand firm on this point: if you devalue me because of my size, that's your failing, not mine. There is no natural relationship between size and self-esteem. This relationship is most transparently something that we construct in day-to-day interaction, in our media, in our culture. And while I'm all for research that explores this relationship, I am straight-up angry to see it reported as yet another reason to scold the hefty.

On that note: you know what's really lazy? Demanding that other people change their bodies to fit your aesthetic, rather than reframing your own perception. You know what's really a problem of self-control? Treating people -- especially children -- in a way that reinforces their low status, because it delights you to be so wonderfully superior. Give me the choice, and I'll own the sin of a big round belly or a wide lumpy ass over the sin of narrow-minded cruelty any day.


Queen of Thoughts said...

Booyah! I abhor this double standard. May I say that it relates to appearance in general- it's okay if men are slobby and look like they just rolled out of bed, but women had better look amazing even if they're just going to the grocery store.

Also, "get me to a nunnery"- hilarious.

Katie said...

Seriously...as soon as I read the comment on self-esteem declining with years of schooling, I thought to myself, "Kids are so cruel." I can just see these kids being taunted in the school yard. I remember that no one (teacher, parent, other respected adult) ever spoke to us about these double standards...until we were older, say 10-11 and some kids were getting systematically ostracized.

I wholeheartedly agree that this is a social issue. The fact that everyone seems to collude with this, "overweight people are [insert negative adjective here]" is appalling and revealing of a pretty dark facet of humanity. You'd never get away with saying that in enlightened society about any other human feature.

Thanks for your consciousness-raising rant! As always, you rock!

cancrit(at)gmail.com said...

Thanks, Katie! I'm not sure about this, though:

The fact that everyone seems to collude with this, "overweight people are [insert negative adjective here]" is appalling and revealing of a pretty dark facet of humanity. You'd never get away with saying that in enlightened society about any other human feature.

You probably could... depending on what circle you're in, and what group/adjective you're talking about. I have to agree with point 11 here: http://kateharding.net/comments-policy/

Speaking of the schoolyard experience, I do wonder if things have changed in the last ten years. There has been a fair amount of anti-bullying "activism" in that interval, which might have raised some awareness.

And the awareness needs to be raised first with adults. Kids *can* be cruel, but they're kids -- we can't expect that they'll be anything but uncivilized without proper guidance. ;-) A lot of the time, though, I think the kids who suffer most are those who are also quietly disliked by teachers or other authority figures, who thus fail to stick up for them (or who implicitly encourage the harassment). That all point to something learned, not something instinctive.

Not that I'm speaking from experience, or anything. :-P