Real Quick: Still more punishment for fat children

By | July 13, 2011

Children's legs and feet at an outdoor birthday party. By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble), licensed under Creative Commons
Two researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have made a controversial recommendation in an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They suggest that state laws governing child abuse be employed to remove “extremely” fat children from their parents’ custody, and that these children be placed in foster care.

This was sent to me by several readers, plus it was on my local news this morning. MSNBC has an opinion column on the subject from yesterday evening, which manages to argue against the idea while still being absolutely ghastly at the same time, talking about “the epidemic of blubber” and “porky youths” and uncritically blaming all this rampant fattery exclusively on overeating. Given that the column’s author is on the porky side himself, some of this language may be intended to be humorously glib, and to his credit, he does also note: “There is no proven cure for obesity.”

However, when I talk about the overwhelming focus on childhood obesity contributing to a culture that punishes fat kids, this is exactly what I mean. The article authors argue that their suggestion is not about assigning blame to parents, but it is difficult to see it as being about anything else — if you are removing a child from their home under the guise of protecting them from imminent, life-threatening harm, you are essentially arguing that the child’s parents are incapable of providing that child a safe and nurturing environment in which to live. Even if there are no criminal charges filed against the parents,  on a purely social level, who else’s fault could it be?

State intervention “ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible. That may require instruction on parenting,” said [Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital Boston], who wrote the article with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

“Despite the discomfort posed by state intervention, it may sometimes be necessary to protect a child,” Murtagh said. (Source)

Possibly I am being a tich oversensitive here, but I think that state intervention involving the removal of a child from their home, even against their will, is a little more than a discomfort, and I am frankly horrified by the dismissive tone of this language. Placing a child in foster care is not a minor inconvenience, and yet here we are in a world where researchers can frame it as “discomfort” and nothing more. I am inclined to blame a cultural ideology in which fat children are not identified as individuals requiring personal attention and support, but are instead simply an embarrassing problem to be solved — or eradicated.

The focus on childhood obesity at the expense of focusing on health for all children creates a Machiavellian situation in which fat kids are to be slimmed down by any means necessary — even if it means taking them away from loving and attentive parents. Meanwhile, average-sized kids who also subsist on fast food and a lack of exercise are ignored, because these “risky” behaviors are evidently only a problem if the child is fat.

Placing fat kids in foster care only serves to punish both kid and parents in a brutally public way, as the child will undoubtedly internalize the reasons for their removal as being their fault (and who will pay for the years of subsequent therapy they may require?), and the parents will be socialized as monsters who are slowly murdering their offspring. This is even more of a risk in cases of “extreme” obesity, in which the kid in question is likely already experiencing social and emotional issues, and possibly bullying.

Simply put, if a fat child is gaining weight rapidly and developing health issues as a result, it does not serve the child to remove them from their existing support system — psychologically speaking, this is as likely to make things worse as it is to improve anything. An ideal solution would diversify and improve the dietary choices and eating habits for all kids, especially kids in urban and low-income areas who are most at risk, and provide space for all children to engage in fun and safe physical activity. Unfortunately, advocacy in favor of subjective standards of health and well-being for everyone lacks the scary keywords that draw attention to irresponsible articles like the JAMA example above. It’s a damn shame too.

Hat tip to Devin and several other readers for the heads up.


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