Fat is a Preschool Issue

Yesterday I posted a link on my facebook page  to an article on CNN.com called “Fat is the New Ugly on the Playground,”  which featured a few nice quotes by yours truly. In response to the post were comments including the following:

Excuse me in my experience fat has always equalled ugly on the playground, ain't nuthin new here, take it from a former fat kid.

'Fat' has always been ugly on the playground, or any where else for that matter!

I'm not sure why this is all of a sudden breaking news.

Absolutely true. Fat kids—boys as well as girls—have long been tormented, demonized and excluded by their schoolmates. In CAMD I talk about the history of American attitudes towards fat—the reasons it came to be seen as a moral issue, a character flaw;  how it became particularly taboo for women whose avoirdupois was once considered sexy. Check out an exotic dancer in the 1800s:

 

I struggle openly in CAMD  and elsewhere  over how to imbue a daughter with a healthy body image. In fact, I've been writing about women and weight since the late 1980s, so it's not like any of this is a surprise.

What’s new, however, is the ever-earlier age at which children—girls particularly-- become conscious of weight. In  Schoolgirls I cited  a study revealing  that 50% of  9-year-old girls were dieting (check this  Wall Street Journal article  by a reporter who, to see for himself, interviewed  a group of girls  when that study came out; he talked to them again recently as adults).  But now, it appears, by age three girls equate thinness with beauty, sweetness, niceness and popularity; they associate "fat" meanwhile with laziness,  stupidity and friendlessness.

Yes, I said three. In a 2010 study researchers engaged 3-5 year old girls in games of Candyland and Chutes & Ladders asking them to choose among three game pieces--a thin one, an average-sized one and a fat one--to represent themselves. While in the past children that age showed little ability to distinguish between average and thin weights, today's wee ones  grabbed thin pieces at higher rates not only than fat ones but than those of "normal" weight. When asked by researchers to swap a thin figure for a fat one, the girls not only recoiled but some refused to even touch  the  chubbier game piece making comments such as, “I hate her, she has a fat stomach," or "She is fat. I don't want to be that one."

Again: preschoolers.

As  I’ve written before on this blog, toy manufacturers have lately classic toys on a diet, claiming (apparently rightly) that “Girls won’t play with childlike dolls any more.” So take a look:

 

 

 

Our friends at  Pigtail Pals, in a recent blog about this baby-fear-of-fat phenomenon posted a photo of how Barbie--whose figure has reflected the idealized female physique for decades--has also whittled her waist and hiked her heinie. Meanwhile, the doll's demographic has dropped: she's now marketed at 3-6 year olds (her original audience was 8-12).

 

There's no more grace period. From the get-go girls are bombarded with images of women whose bodies range from unattainable to implausible (Disney Princesses, anyone?). Even  G-rated films and educational TV present thinness not as healthier (which it may or not be, depending on how you get there)  but morally superior.

Given the mental health vulnerabilities an ever-narrowing standard of beauty creates in our girls--not to mention the negative impact fat-shaming has on overweight kids--are we really okay with letting this slide?

 

 

Parents Make Disney Stop Fat-Shaming Kids

Call it another triumph for parent-power (and the power of all those who love kids). The protests that erupted in the wake of Disney’s Feb 3 launch of “Habit Heroes,” an exhibit at Epcot purportedly designed to combat childhood obesity, resulted  yesterday in the exhibit’s (and web site's) reportedly indefinite closure. Here’s what happened: “Habit Heroes,” developed in partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield (who should’ve known better) was  an interactive series of games in which  kids teamed up with animated  “heroes”--Will Power and Callie Stenics (get it??)--to defeat “villains” such as

 

 

 

And Stink Bomb who is not only fat but has bad hygiene!

Lordy, lordy.

Let’s pause for a minute and talk about why shaming fat kids is not just mean but ineffective as a weight-loss strategy (just in case you don’t already know):  In a letter addressed to blogger Shannon Russell the director of the  National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development  explained that programs like Disney's or the controversial  Strong4Life campaign in Georgia:

 

...carry a great risk of increasing stigma for those children who are overweight or obese. which in turn can reinforce unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating). A number of research studies over the last decade have supported this concern. For example, studies suggest that overweight children who are teased about their appearance are more likely to binge eat or use unhealthy weight-control practices, and weight-based victimization ahs been correlated with lower levels of physical activity. Not surprisingly, stigmitazation  of obese individuals, particularly adolescents, poses risks to their psychological health.

Other studies show that the perception that obesity is solely a matter of personal responsibility, as opposed to understanding the complexity of contributing factors, can increase negative stereotypes of overweight people. It is important, therefore, that public messages about obesity address this complexity wherever possible.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Disney couldn't address health risks of excess weight without making fat kids cry. In movie after movie—even the supposedly “enlightened” ones such as Beauty and the Beast or Tangled---fat  (or “ugly” not to mention "old & female") in the Wonderful World has  been used to signal character flaws: it's shorthand for stupid, ugly, comical, asexual, evil. For instance:

Ursula from Little Mermaid

 

Aunt Sarah from Lady and the Tramp

 

The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland

 

Mama Odie in Princess and the Frog (not villainous, but a weird)

 

Ratcliffe in Pocahontas

Stromboli from Pinocchio 

Smee from Peter Pan

The list goes on. So you think this company is going to approach overweight children with the care, compassion and sensitivity they deserve?

A number of bloggers have taken this on (hence the pressure to close down the exhibit). But I haven't seen anyone discussing this part:  Disney seemed to be trying to have its cake and shun kids for eating it, too. Because if the company really wanted to help in the fight against childhood obesity it would stop its pimping its characters out to be plastered on tasty, empty-caloried, ultra-processed, high-sugar foods that contribute to the problem. Tell me how Will Power would react, for instance, about Disney Princess Spaghetti O’s?

 

 

Or the Disney Princess “healthy kids” Campbell’s soup, which, granted, contains 80 calories in a half cup serving (does anyone ever eat a half-cup serving?) but has virtually no nutritional value while dishing up 480 mg of sodium. Oh, and lest you forget, in tests of canned food by the Breast Cancer Fund  the Disney Princess Cool Shapes, Shaped Pasta with Chicken  Broth contained the second highest levels of BPA (a chemical linked to early puberty, breast cancer, prostate cancer, ADHD, type 2 diabetes and, oh yes--obesity)  of any product tested. 

That's not to say Disney doesn't care  about children's BPA levels when it suits them, otherwise they wouldn't advertise that their sippy cups and feeding sets for toddlers are BPA-free. How messed up is that?

Then there are the "Jewel Berry" Disney Princess  Pop-Tarts.  Jewel Berry?

 

 

And the Princess Belle Fruit snacks which on the front promise “real fruit” but whose first two ingredients are corn syrup and sugar (that “real fruit” turns out to be apple juice puree).

 

Speaking of fruit, the princesses also grace containers of apple juice, a beverage whose calorie and sugar content are precisely the same as soda pop and is similarly linked to childhood obesity.

 

Though I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. It’s not like I’d prefer Disney to start branding more healthful fare like vegetables or fruit. Oh, wait, they already have:

Sigh. You know what I think would be really great? If the company made films in which the protagonists were themselves a healthy weight—that is, not impossibly narrow-wasted and large-breasted—and in which fat characters (girls and women in particular) were neither the subject of ridicule or disdain. Maybe one could even get the prince.

 

 

 

Does your toddler love her skinnies? Or hate her fatties?

Walking by Baby Gap yesterday I was pleased to see the company has  broadened its palette of girls' infant clothing. Some great stuff in black & white (though the one-shouldered ruffled shirt and the eyelet vest are way too Toddlers & Tiaras for my taste). I was feeling pretty good about that until I noticed the "I love my skinnies!" sign in the front window, over a little toddler-sized mannequin. Seriously? Toddlers are  all big diaper-butt chubbies. And they are SUPPOSED to be!

I do buy "skinnies" for Daisy because she's tall and lanky and they are the only ones that reach her ankles without falling off of her waist. So they're not skinny on her. They're normal-looking. But doesn't calling them "skinnies" does send the message to kids from toddler to tween that being underweight is desireable? What about the girl who doesn't fit into skinnies? Is she a a "fatty?" And will she be proud of that?  And if Daisy eventually becomes more proportionate and skinnies are no longer normals on her, will she feel she's too "fat" as well? Or do styles in jeans swing so much that "skinnies" doesnt feel like a personal comment on one's body but really does describe a cut of jean?

Maybe they should be renamed "restrictives" since it's hard to move in them.....

I work really hard not to infuse the word "fat" with negative meaning for my child. To get across the idea that there are a lot of body types and a wide range of what is healthy for people and people can be both too big and too small for their health. But there is not one size that is "correct" or "healthy." But man oh man, that is a battle that is SO hard to fight....