Virginia Sole-Smith, of Philipstown, is the author of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. She will discuss the book at 3 p.m. on Saturday (April 22) at the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison.
How did you come to this topic?
I was a women’s magazine writer for a long time, and I wrote weight-loss and diet-culture stories: how to get your best bikini body, that kind of thing. When I became a parent, I didn’t want to pass on all of the stuff I’d learned about the “right way to have a body” or the “right way to eat.” I wanted to do something different, but I wasn’t sure what.
I started reporting on what we actually know about the relationship between weight and health and discovered it’s usually not a causal relationship — people in larger bodies tend to have more health problems, but nobody really knows why, and weight loss isn’t usually the fix. With kids in particular, we know that going on diets and having anxiety around weight are the top predictors for eating disorders.
You discuss what you call “the myth” of a childhood obesity epidemic but note that more children are now considered obese than 50 years ago. How is it a myth?
How we collect the data changed. They only added the “obese” category to pediatric growth charts in 2010. The same thing happened with the adult BMI [body mass index] scale in 1998 — about 29 million Americans moved from overweight into obese, just because they changed the way they calibrated it.
The BMI scale was never meant to be a measure of health — it was developed by a Flemish statistician in the 19th century to measure the average man. The standard growth chart we use to measure kids is based on data collected between 1963 and 1998, so we’re measuring them against their parents and grandparents. American kids today, as a whole, are a much more diverse population.
Many studies start with the knee-jerk assumption that a fat kid is unhealthy, and we need to intervene, instead of saying: “OK, it looks like kids are getting bigger. What is this telling us about their health?” We’re not seeing skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes, but we are seeing a huge rise in eating disorders. If you want to protect someone’s long-term health risk, preventing an eating disorder in the teen years is a great way to do that.
We have gotten it really backward. I was just looking at a workout program for kids on YouTube that was like, “Burn fat and get a flat tummy.” It was aimed at 6-year-olds. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a new set of clinical guidelines encouraging doctors to prescribe weight loss to kids at about the same time that weight-loss drugs were approved for children as young as 12. A lot of us on this beat have been teasing out the financial entanglements.
Why doesn’t dieting work in the long run?
Body size is much less under our control than we think. It’s probably at least 60 percent genetics. No matter how much you diet, no matter how much you exercise, there’s only so much progress you’re going to make because we have set points with our weight that our bodies fight to defend.
Many of us spend our entire adult lives on that hamster wheel of gaining and losing, feeling it’s our fault when, in fact, it’s how dieting works. These industries have sold you this message that you should have total control and that they are going to tell us the right way to eat to have the perfect body. When it doesn’t work, they blame us for not following the plan closely enough or not having willpower or not trying hard enough.
Fat kids have always been teased. How do you prevent that?
I would be naive to say we can completely dismantle anti-fat bias. Fat kids can expect to be teased, and they can expect that their teachers, parents and doctors are not going to stand up for them. That’s where we can make some change.
What can parents do?
They can say: “In our house, your body is safe and loved and totally respected. And we’re going to make sure you know that. When you encounter teasing, it’s not your fault. We’re going to stand up for you and help you learn to navigate.” Parents of thin kids need to do this, too, because I was a thin kid who’s a fat adult — size is not guaranteed!
When young children first call someone fat, they’re not saying it out of malice, they’re just noticing a body difference. Parents will rush in. “Don’t say that. That’s not nice.” Instead, you could say, “Yeah, that person has a bigger body. We don’t really talk about people’s bodies without their permission, but bodies come in different shapes and sizes.” That’s a subtle shift. When I was a kid, people called each other “gay” as an insult all the time. That has changed dramatically. We’ve moved these needles before, so we can do it again.