How Childhood-Obesity Fight Damages Self Esteem

Courtesy of Lesley Kinsel

When I was 9 I began a new diary: "My name is Lesley." I wrote "I am 9 (almost ten) and overweight. 105 pounds!"

I didn't write, "I am 9 (almost ten) and I love unicorns," although that was true. Nor did I write, "I am 9 (almost ten) and I live in Florida with my dad and my dog Priscilla, who is all black with a big poofy tail," although that was likewise accurate.

Before I'd lived to see my age inscribed in double digits, I had already learned that my weight defined me; everything else was less important than my being fat. This is why when I hear or see anything on the subject of Michelle Obama's new campaign against childhood obesity, I feel a knot in my stomach. I know this sort of approach will inevitably turn into a campaign against obese children, and fat kids have enough to worry about. They already have to fight hard to resist this culture that tells them their size will always hold them back; they do not need to be further singled out in a crusade mounted by the beloved first lady of the United States.

Prior to being told I was fat by my well-intentioned pediatrician (who showed me how far outside the standard "height-weight" guidelines I fell for my age), I'd spent my life as an active and athletic child, my fatness no obstacle in keeping up with my peers (and frequently besting them). As I got older I came to understand what being fat meant: fat kids were lousy at sports, and those who tried to play were to be mocked for it. Fat kids were always picked last, and though I was never picked last, I came to fear that it would inevitably happen. So I stopped playing. I backed away from sports and games altogether. I dreaded the very public Presidential Physical Fitness Tests my school administered annually; though I could still land myself somewhere in the average for flexibility and strength, I was far above the normal body fat range for my age. I was an obese child. I was a fat kid.

I never had any weight-related health issues back then, nor do I now. Nevertheless, I began to diet, because how I looked was more important than how I felt. In elementary school, I became gravely conscious of the food I ate, and developed lists of foods that were "good" and foods that were "bad." My pediatrician sent me to a dietician, who prescribed daily menus in strict portions. As the years passed and I later ventured into the numbers-obsessed indoctrination of Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, my standards become tighter and the "good" food list grew ever shorter, supplanted with some "free" items like romaine lettuce with balsamic vinegar and Mrs. Dash, pickles, or Crystal Lite—"free" of both calories and nutritional value. Some weight came off, in small bursts, but then it would stop, usually after about 20 pounds of loss. I'd cut out the romaine lettuce. Still, no change.

I was an obese child. And it seemed that no matter how powerfully my mind longed to be anything else, my body would resist. Eventually, once the diet began to fail, I would surrender, and eat normal food again. The lost weight would return, plus more. Shortly thereafter, I would make a fresh attack on my fatness, doomed to failure like all the rest. I would return to exercise, but not the exercise of my younger days, when I played games with friends simply because it was fun to move and to be alive. Exercise became a chore. I walked, long punishing walks around my neighborhood, satisfied only if I could maintain the speed at which my legs were throbbing painfully. It's fair to say I worked as hard as I could, and still I couldn't make my dream of thinness—the only dream I had—come true. (We won't dwell on the tragedy of a teenage girl dreaming not of becoming an astronaut, or the president, but only of becoming thinner.)

After a decade of dieting, false hopes, and dead ends, I was out of options. I was an obese child, now assured of a life as an obese adult. The path I ultimately chose was self-acceptance. I chose to shed self-hatred and to respect myself, something I'd never done before. It was a long time coming; it didn't happen in a week or even a year. But I came to realize that it wasn't my fatness that made me hate exercise; it was the social expectations associated with being fat that did so. It wasn't my fatness that made me feel inferior to and isolated from people I met; it was the cultural ideology which dictated that fat people are lonely, miserable, and unloved.

My fat was never the problem; the problem was living in a world that targets fat people as defective and unacceptable. If I hadn't felt singled out, if I hadn't been convinced that no one in the world would like me, let alone love me, until I stopped being fat, my childhood and teenage years would have been very different. Indeed, if I hadn't lost and regained over and over again, adding a little more weight each time, I might not have been as fat as I am today. I'll never know.

The need for better education of both children and adults of all sizes on the subjects of nutrition and exercise is undeniable, and on this account the intentions behind Michelle Obama's efforts are admirable. But approaching this subject by employing (and even exploiting) the entrenched culture of guilt around the state of our bodies is unlikely to succeed in making any of us healthier. All that I learned as a result of my efforts to combat my own personal battle against "childhood obesity" was that being fat was one of the worst things a person could be, and I was obligated to do everything possible—no matter how unhealthy—to change. It was only as an adult, after I gave up dieting, that I began to exercise because I enjoy it, and to eat a healthful diet because it's delicious. Eating well and exercising regularly work together to make a body—any body—feel good, even if they don't result in weight loss.

Call it a campaign against childhood couch-sitting. Call it a drive to get kids to go outside and play. Call it a movement to educate children on basic nutrition and how their amazing growing bodies work for them. But don't single out the fat kids. If I am any indication, doing this will only ensure that this generation will be fatter than ever, dragging behind them some heavy baggage around food issues and low self-esteem. Many of them will struggle with body hatred for the rest of their lives.

The effort to ensure the health of our children does not need to emphasize the existing anathema toward fatness. It can instead focus on the nobler effort of helping all of our children, across all sizes and abilities, to know their bodies, to love and accept themselves, and to be the healthiest people they can be. As adults, this is a lesson we could stand to learn, as well as teach.