HBO is upping the ante (and, I imagine the profitability) of their “Weight of the Nation” series with Weight of the Nation – Kids. Just when you thought that HBO couldn’t conflate body size with health any more, now they’re adding kids to the mix.
The problem with this is that it could be amazing if they didn’t couch it as a war on fat people – and now on fat kids. There’s a story about a girl who fights to get a salad bar in her school, and a group of teen activists who fight to have healthy, tasty (and local) food in their cafeteria. Their promo stuff goes on about nutritious food options and physical activity.
These aren’t bad things, per se. But to the extent that they are good ideas, they are good because they are good for all kids, not because they might change the body size of kids. Focusing on weight is shown over and over again to lead to size-based bullying and increased eating disorders but not thinner or healthier people – and let’s remember that those are two different things.
But what does the research say?
Researchers studied the effects of “school based healthy-living programs.” Turns out that these programs are being instituted in lots of schools, despite the fact that, per the researchers, there is little research on the effectiveness of these programs or any inadvertent harmful effects on children’s mental health. This study found that these programs are actually triggering eating disorders in kids. Dr. Leora Pinhas said “The programs present this idea that weight loss is good, that only thin is healthy…We live in a culture that stigmatizes fat people, and we’ve turned it into this kind of moralistic health thing.”
Research from the University of Minnesota found that “none of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain”.
A Canadian study found that eating disorders were more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in kids.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that hospitalizations of children younger than 12 years for eating disorders rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006. (Children UNDER 12) There was a 15% increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders in all ages across the same time period.
The Journal of Pediatrics has identified bullying of overweight/obese children as the #1 type of bullying that takes place.
So HBO is not exactly jumping on the success train here. These studies aren’t difficult to find, it seems to me that if they were really interested in the health of kids and not, for example, capitalizing on a moment in time of massive prejudice toward a group for the way they look to gain profit and political points, they would have found this and changed their focus.
We can have a complete conversation about public health for people of all ages without once mentioning weight. It’s easy, actually, since there aren’t separate healthy habits for thin people and fat people at any age. When we talk about foods that are chemically designed to be nutritionally void, make us crave them, and interfere with our sense of fullness, then there are plenty of health arguments to be made, so we don’t need to create a fat panic. When we talk about the benefits of movement, those benefits apply to people of all sizes.
Kids come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and the truth is we don’t know why, we don’t know how to change the sizes of kids, nor do we know if changing their size would change their health outcomes. Medical experiments on kids without permission is what HBO is promoting, and it’s wrong. Public health should be about providing information and access to people of all ages when it comes to food, movement, and healthcare. Public health should not be about making fat people’s bodies the public’s business or trying to whip people up into a stereotyping, stigmatizing, prejudiced frenzy against part of the population for how they look. HBO should know better and can do better.
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