Conversations about childhood obesity incomplete without body positivity

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Photo Credit: Abriella Corker | Daily Texan Staff

Chubby, big-boned, stocky. However you say it, I am, and always have been fat. 

For a while, that made me really sad. Nowadays, I’m mostly OK with it. But there was a short time in my life when I was blissfully unaware of that word and its negative connotations. Then third grade came along, and my pediatrician warned my parents that I was on the fast track toward obesity. 

Suddenly, my weight was the major talking point in every hospital visit, even if I came in sick with the flu. Everyone was counting my calories. And yet, no one ever thought to remind me that my self-worth didn’t have to hinge on my weight — so I let it. To a certain extent, I still do. 

That’s why it shook me to my core when I heard about Dell Medical School’s new health program targeting pre-adolescent girls that display “risk factors” for obesity. 

Dell’s community healthcare initiative, Factor Health, is carrying out this youth health program in partnership with the Austin chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. 

“The primary focus will be to reduce weight and reduce related health care issues,” said Mini Kahlon, Factor Health’s executive director.  

The program’s premise draws from research that quantifies the link between childhood obesity and the onset of chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. The existing literature doesn’t differentiate between the sexes, but Kahlon said they wanted to focus on girls because there may be specific intervention practices that work better for girls than boys, and vice versa. 

The program will recruit interested participants through after-school programs put on by the Austin Boys & Girls Club, and will focus on teaching children healthy eating and physical exercise tips.

I don’t have a problem with any of this. In fact, I commend Dell Medical for taking steps to establish healthy childhood habits, preventing the need for more serious medical intervention and offsetting future health care costs. 

However, I worry that this program will seriously damage these girls’ self-confidence as they grow up, especially since it will not address topics like self-image and body positivity. 

Childhood obesity expert Deanna Hoelscher explained why Factor Health likely won’t cover these topics. 

“Generally, when you work on obesity prevention programs, you don’t want to talk about body size,” Hoelscher said. 

Even if Factor Health won’t specifically discuss body size with participants, they will be recruited for the program based on their current weight and the weight gain trajectories they seem to be on. Since this is a highly individualized intervention approach, there is a very real possibility that a participant is the only one in her friend group to be recruited. These kids are smart enough to figure out that they were chosen because they look different from their friends. And since fatphobia is coded into almost every aspect of mainstream media, I’m scared that this program will only accelerate the participants’ realization that their bodies and they themselves are not to be considered beautiful. 

That’s a really heavy burden to put on a child’s shoulders. I know — I’ve had to bear it. 

Kahlon noted that Factor Health is committed to addressing these sorts of concerns as they continue to plan the details of the initiative, and I really hope they do. 

In addition to cultivating healthy eating and exercise habits, they have the platform to teach kids about healthy self-image at a time when they are most prone to developing body image disorders that may affect them for the rest of their lives. Since Factor Health’s main goal is to decrease the healthcare costs related to obesity, they should also consider the hefty costs that eating disorders can bring.

I know obesity causes many health problems. I know it lowers your life expectancy and your quality of life. Deteriorating mental health has the same side effects. I am so sick and tired of people telling little kids that being fat is the worst thing you can do to yourself, because it’s not.  

Dasgupta is a neuroscience and biochemistry sophomore from Frisco.