So everyone has been talking about the childhood obesity epidemic, particularly since the four part HBO documentary series The Weight of the Nation aired. Having recently completed my dissertation on the framing of the childhood obesity epidemic on television, I wanted to take a break but after watching Part Three, “Children in Crisis,” I feel the need to respond. In many ways the one-hour program provide precisely the type of argument and evidence lacking in typical mainstream narratives. Focusing attention on the difficulties parents have to contend with such as the barrage of food marketing on multiple media platforms and availability of a variety of food products developed specifically for youth consumers is good. However, in each family segment there was an “obesity clinic” at the center of the solution narrative.
I am not arguing that families may not need particular support regarding health and nutrition choices in their homes, but I do question the motives of the healthcare industry, the second largest industry in the nation, conflating weight/size with health consistently. Can we have a much needed discussion about diabetes without making obesity the umbrella crisis? Can we recognize that the BMI categories are flawed knowing they are consistently used out of the context of family medical and personal medical histories? Can we also acknowledge that a diversity of body sizes and shapes is biologically normal and that there are significant numbers of healthy “obese” and “overweight” people as well as unhealthy “normal weight” people? Can we address fatphobia, discrimination, and bullying as contributors to poor emotional health?
I am “waiting” for the nation to have a frank discussion about food production, labor, leisure, and human rights, but somehow the narrative is fixated on shaming parents into taking their children to the doctor and/or weight-loss programs to “fix” their bodies. I was waiting for at least one explanation for why Tea, the eight-year old black girl, was bigger than her classmates and seemed to be developing early. I was waiting for a discussion about hormones in milk, eggs, and meat. I was waiting for some acknowledgement of genetically modified foods (food science). But no, the solutions were framed narrowly within single-issue policy-making for stronger regulations on marketing or food or for fitness programs. In the meantime, the solution is to visit obesity clinics and research centers, and don’t forget your health insurance card or your credit card because unless you have cold hard cash these “card” industries stand to gain a lot in this weight crisis.
Nevermind the fact that many youth regardless of their size are eating similar diets of high fructose corn syrup, yellow lake 5 or 6, red lake 40, and salt. I for one am tired of doing workshops with kids where they cannot identify common fruits and vegetables, the components of a basic meal, or read the ingredients in the foods and beverages they eat daily. But I am clear that this level of illiteracy does not happen on a national level by mistake. The under-education and underdevelopment of this nation has been strategically deployed through marketing which functions as our primary public pedagogy. We used to have cooks in school kitchens, now we have underpaid servers/contingent labor forces, typically women. We had cooking classes in school and now we have extremely well paid advertising executives and recent college grad interns using all their creativity to market crap to my kid to pay their student loan debts.
If I am going to be called to fight this battle, I want to be clear that I am fighting to win peace for the nation. Peace means parenting that is not in competition with multinational unaccountable unregulated industries. It means addressing widespread food and environmental illiteracy for people “at every size and every weight,” we have had enough food product (brand) literacy to last a millennium.
Peace means affordable afterschool programming so that youth can be actively engaged in their communities with adult supervision at currently underutilized parks and recreation facilities. Peace means job security for mothers (of color)/parents broadly and explicit recognition that leisure time (evenings, weekends, vacations) is a human right. I’m still waiting for my nation to roll out the peace and corporate accountability strategy for improving my community’s health. For me this is the “wait” this nation can no longer afford.