‘Round the Mulberry Bush: Kids, food, and the hierarchy of needs.

By | October 12, 2011

Sesame Street has added a new muppet: Lily was introduced in an hour-long special entitled “Growing Hope Against Hunger”. Her purpose is to give kids in food-insecure households someone to relate to, as well as to draw attention to the issue.

…In the special, Lily is prompted to make a revelation when one of the more popular muppets — Elmo — remarks that he “didn’t know there were so many people who didn’t have the food they needed.”

Lily then confesses to him that she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from and that times can be difficult.

Food insecurity is defined as the lack of a consistent access to food for active, healthy lives, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says 14.5% of households were food insecure at least some time during 2010 and that 5.4% of households experienced very low food security the same year.

Obviously, current rates of food insecurity are a side effect of the economic climate and continued unemployment or underemployment, although obviously this is a problem for some families even when times are good for the majority of folks.

Last month, the state of Georgia launched a childhood obesity campaign that uses striking photos of fat kids as cautionary tales, candidly relying on stigma as a body-shaming tool. There are billboards and commercials and it’s all very, very sad. (Thanks to Kyle for the images.)

In one commercial, a young girl says, “I don’t like going to school, because all the other kids pick on me. It hurts my feelings.” She is shot in stark greys, her expression blank. When she finishes speaking, a legend appears onscreen with a somber, booming flourish: “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.”

The next suggestion? “Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia.”

Meanwhile, in my home city of Boston, a campaign against “sugary” drinks (I have never fully understood how much sugar must be necessary for a drink to qualify as “sugary”, myself) features a commercial designed collaboratively with teens.

In it, a young man stops for a soda after seeing a girl walk by with a sports drink. As he takes his first sip, a blob of curious yellow material — it looks like lemon jello — flies into the frame and slaps him on the face. The commercial instructs, “Don’t get smacked by fat!” and then notes that sugary drinks cause obesity and type 2 diabetes.

There is one comment on the YouTube page, and it reads: “The thing is… it hasnt caused any of this to me…. so [I’ll] just keep enjoying my soda.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone taking childhood hunger seriously in the current atmosphere, in which childhood obesity is the popular drum to beat, but these issues are not so far apart as we might assume. It is certainly true that you cannot tell a child from a food-insecure household simply by looking at him or her. It is also likely, statistically speaking, that at least some of the children in these households are above the assigned weight for their age.

Like food insecurity, obesity is something that happens more frequently in poor households, although the precise reasons for this remain unknown. I would argue that it is related to a lack of access, both to affordable foods necessary for a balanced diet, as well as safe places for kids to be active. In the Georgia advertisements, these heartbreaking kids talk again and again about being picked on, and frankly being picked on does make it difficult to participate in group activities that might result in fun exercise.

In my own experience as a fat kid, I stopped playing sports not because I disliked them, and not because I could not play them, but because I was repeatedly told by my peers that I was not entitled to enjoy sports, or to be good at them. Because I was fat, and fat kids get picked last.

Georgia’s ad campaign is especially destructive because it underscores the very mechanisms that keep kids from being happy, healthy, and active, no matter their size — it reinforces stigma by portraying these kids in their dull grey worlds with their depressing words and their firm belief that no one likes them. Being fat does not take the fun out of being a kid, but being bullied by peers and adults certainly does.

The Boston “Fatsmack” commercial is equally troubling, for different reasons. It implies that consuming sugar actually causes type 2 diabetes, when there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Indeed, you cannot simply eat your way to diabetes; while fatness is an associated factor, it is not a universal one, as vast numbers of fat people never develop the disease, and many non-fat people do develop it. A lack of physical activity is a much clearer risk factor for type 2 diabetes, but it’s far easier and more satisfying to scapegoat a particular food as the source of the diabetes scourge, isn’t it.

And of course, with the solitary comment, we see that such campaigns unwittingly send the message that sugary drinks or the smacking “fat” is only of concern when it results in obesity.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid-shaped psychological model that specifies the things humans need to thrive and be healthful, in order of importance. [Edit: Certainly, there are many criticisms to be made of this theory, but I’m going with it for the visual and to get us thinking.] The base of said pyramid is comprised of physiological needs: the absolute minimum requirements a human requires to survive. 

It includes food. According to Maslow, food comes before security, before family, before friendship, before self-esteem, before creativity. If we are to do anything else other than simply exist, first we require food, specifically enough food, in order to keep ourselves alive. Ideally, we should be secure in our food sources.

Kids in food-insecure households are stuck here, at the base, because not being sure of where or when your next meal will come, or what it will be — that distracts a person from focusing on much more than that. Especially a child with a limited ability to acquire food independently of a parent or guardian.

But many fat kids are stuck here too. They are stuck here because they are being repeatedly told that they are not consuming food in the proper way, or that they are eating the wrong kinds of food. Fat kids in food-insecure households may well be overeating when food is available because they are not sure when they will have that luxury again, and fat kids who do have reliable access to food sources are encouraged — or even forced — to resist their hunger (or whatever drives them to eat) in the name of “improving” themselves so they will no longer warrant being picked on — when really the problem is with a culture that allows fat kids — or disabled kids, or sick kids, or poor kids, or any kid who is persistently different — to get picked on in the first place. This is not how you teach a child to value him- or herself enough to eat in the way that makes them feel good, and healthy according to their own experience thereof.

By raising our kids to be obsessed with food, either the lack of it or the overabundance of it, we are stunting their development. We are holding them at the base of that pyramid instead of encouraging them to climb. No child should go hungry, ever, but nor should any child be made to feel stigmatized or guilty for eating. It does not work. It only produces kids who cannot fathom a world in which they will ever feel safe, and loved, and accepted, and real.


LiteralGemini on October 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm.

Well said


Awlbiste on October 12, 2011 at 8:08 pm.

Holy shit, that Georgia ad. Holy shit.


Erylin on October 12, 2011 at 8:09 pm.

i grew up in a food secure household….starting about age 10 though I myself was food insecure. Slimfast 1500 calorie intake diets for 3 months…at age 10…all in the name of “my own good”


Layne on October 21, 2011 at 1:48 am.

i can totally relate, i have a heaviness and depression in my family line, so as i got to about that age i began to balloon- my mother desperately wanted a thin pretty balarena child. she would and still does- force me to skip meals sometimes for entire days at a time. im 18 year sold now and due to a disability am stuck back with her, and she’s starting it again. “for your own good’ is the scape goat sentence to- be what i want you to be.


Nomie on October 12, 2011 at 8:45 pm.

It seems like half the red line cars are covered in PSAs for that stupid Fat Smack thing. Makes me feel awesome when I sit down directly under a poster with my big fat ass. UGH.


Kari on October 12, 2011 at 9:43 pm.

A problem with my weight that has persistently affected my health is due to the attitude towards food in my house as a child – I was constantly concerned about whether or not I would have access to food, and if I did, I would overeat, worried that I wouldn’t get another chance to eat that day. I still panic when my ability to obtain food becomes an issue, even now that I can afford it, and having a problem with my weight makes this panic humiliating some days.


Jennifer on October 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm.

Many times, children in food insecure homes do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and their families cannot afford whole grain breads and other healthy foods. They eat what they have access too. In the Rio Grande Valley, where I live, we have a high percentage of these kids. Although Texas law enables school districts that have a high percentage of children from low-income households — I think it’s around 70 or 75 percent at least — to offer free breakfast and lunch to the entire student body, many of these kids still go hungry when not in school. It angers me when people assume that children are fat because they are eating too much. Sometimes it is because they don’t have access to healthy foods. Sometimes it is a hormone imbalance or other medical reason. And sometimes it’s just how we’ve been designed. Thank you Lesley for posting this.


Christine on October 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm.

I’ve missed you here. The whole concept of that Georgia campaign makes me so incredibly sad. How is anyone supposed to be happy when all that they focus on is how a person looks. It would be so much more helpful to show joyful kids of all sizes pushed playing. In the bright colorful world that exists for everyone, fat, thin, whatever. AND then these campaigners need to focus on real issues: like the accessibility of affordable fresh foods or the accessibility of safe spaces for these children to play. Stigmatizing fat people hasnt worked in making us thin. And that’s okay, I don’t need to be thin. But if people want a “healthier” society encouraging healthy eating habits and exercise for all people of all sizes would be a hell of a lot more effective than shaming.


Christine on October 12, 2011 at 11:57 pm.

Sorry that “pushed” in there was courtesy of my phone and my lack of editing skills


Elusis on October 13, 2011 at 4:28 am.

Leslie – my concern about framing this discussion in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy is that the pyramid model is wide open for some serious cultural critique. Taken seriously, it suggests that homeless people, people in refugee camps, victims of natural disasters, the poor, etc. cannot achieve things from those higher levels – self-esteem, friendship, family relationships, morality, creativity, etc. – because they lack fulfillment of those basic, fundamental needs. It’s a pretty classist message, and one that fails to account for resiliency and even basic human nature, which I think pulls us toward relationships and individual growth even in the worst of circumstances.

Clinically speaking, I’ve found it useful to remember that it’s probably not so easy to be your most easy-going, open, adaptable self when your house is being repossessed or you’re not sure where the next meal is coming from. But saying that people with food and other basic needs issues are “stuck here, at the base” is pretty problematic. I know you don’t think that fat kids are “stunted in their development,” but that’s basically what you say above, and as bad as it is for kids to hear that they’re physically and personally defective because they’re fat, do they really need to have Maslow telling them that they’re incapable of developing relationships and becoming self-actualized too? Even if you’re trying to lay the responsibility at the feet of parents and other adults? That doesn’t fit with the reality of fat lives that any of us here know.


Lesley on October 13, 2011 at 7:53 am.

I hear you. I used it because it’s a really fascinating visualization, not because I consider it a strict definition of reality. While I wouldn’t say that these other levels are IMPOSSIBLE by any means, I should think they are more challenging. I stand by my argument that kids who are fixated with their ability to eat — for any reason — have a difficult time focusing on other accomplishments. This is equally true of adults; how many women do we all know whose primary hobby is dieting?


Diandra on October 13, 2011 at 4:34 am.

One thing that does not appear to have been realized by the people responsible for either of these adds is how poverty often causes unhealthy eating habits – fresh fruit and vegetables are way more expensive than fast food. And how would it help to stigmatize obese children (and grown-ups) instead of making sure everybody has access to a healthy lifestyle?


Rosa on October 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm.

In a lot of places the same population that was chronically hungry in the 50’s and early ’60s is the one with the fastest rise in childhood obesity – I’d argue that what we’ve done is solve one problem and replaced it with a much better one – the kids are still not safe in their neighborhoods, still not getting the healthiest food, still facing lifetime stigma over the physical markers of their upbringing – but they’re not sitting in class hungry and unable to focus because of it.


Screaming Fat Girl on October 13, 2011 at 4:49 am.

I’m onboard with your opinions about those ads, but you’re misunderstanding and misusing Maslow’s pyramid to make a point. Having “secure” food from the perspective of the pyramid doesn’t mean healthy food, but just enough calories to survive. And the pyramid’s levels are not discrete or absolute. You don’t have completely fulfill one to move up to the needs of another (hence the reason priests and nuns can take a vow of celibacy, but deal with higher order concerns like esteem and morality).

The pyramid was designed to address life below subsistence, not empty calories vs. healthy calories. Since poverty and obesity are linked, it is clear sufficient calories are available and fulfills the requirements of the lower level of the period. You undermine the credibility of your arguments (which stand well without the use of Maslow) by misusing this theory.


Lesley on October 13, 2011 at 8:02 am.

Interesting points all! But I thought food insecurity IS a matter of insufficient calories, empty or otherwise? As I said to Elusis below, I mostly like the pyramid because it’s a nifty visualization, but I fully acknowledge it has its many critical faults.

However, this confuses me: “Since poverty and obesity are linked, it is clear sufficient calories are available and fulfills the requirements of the lower level of the period.” I’m not sure what you’re saying here — are you suggesting that fat poor folks must be getting enough food consistently simply because they’re fat? Because I don’t think that fatness is a reliable predictor of food availability; there are lots of reasons why folks might be fat and still not be getting enough to eat in either the long or short term.


Atomic Spin on October 13, 2011 at 6:51 am.

Very good blog post. One question though – do you have a source for your claim that there’s no evidence sugar consumption is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes? There have been lots of different studies into the connection between the two, and by and large they find the same thing: consumption of drinks that are rich in sugars (both sodas and fruit juices) are linked to a statistically significant increase in type 2 diabetes, even when you control for other factors such as body weight and physical activity. The largest study I could find, a meta-analysis of 8 smaller studies found that, even after controlling for everything else, subjects who drank 2 or more sugar-sweetened drinks per day were around 25% more likely to develop diabetes.


Lesley on October 13, 2011 at 8:20 am.

The first four studies seem to connect sugar consumption with weight gain, near as I can figure. I’ll have to look at the meta-analysis one more closely before I can comment on that, as that’s a new link to me. Thanks!


Living400lbs on October 13, 2011 at 3:13 pm.

FYI, the American Diabetes Association states that it is a myth that eating too much sugar causes diabetes. The ADA also states that most overweight people do not develope diabetes. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-myths/

(The ADA is not exactly a fat-accepting organization by the way.)


Veronica on October 13, 2011 at 9:11 am.

I read “I don’t like going to school, because all the other kids pick on me. It hurts my feelings.”, and I immediately thought, “That’s aweful! I really hope someone close to this kid sees this, and does something about the bullying!” Honestly, what kind of a person are you, if you see a kid who’s hurting and tell them, “It’s your own/your parents fault, stop eating so much (fatty)”?! But apparantly, that’s what we’re all supposed to think. This world sometimes …


Liza on October 31, 2011 at 11:05 am.

That was my thought too. It sounded like an anti-bullying ad at first, which is what it SHOULD have been.


monica on October 13, 2011 at 9:51 am.

The ads from Georgia are hitting me particularly hard–especially the “fat kids become fat adults” one, because it implies that fat itself is supposed to be horrifying. I can’t even. Like… WHO thought that was a good idea? Because I could do their job better than they could. If I don’t stroke out first. Holy shit.


Jak on October 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm.

Perhaps another reason why so many in poverty are overweight/obese is because of this pattern of starvation and then eating a lot to compensate for starving. It is just like yo-yo dieting on a daily scale (where they’re at school they eat a lot because they can and then they go home and don’t eat until they go to school the next morning) and on a more long-term scale with the food insecurity.


Living400lbs on October 16, 2011 at 3:27 am.



Kelly L. on October 21, 2011 at 10:32 pm.

Yes, this, exactly.


Amy on October 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm.

“No child should go hungry, ever, but nor should any child be made to feel stigmatized or guilty for eating.” Well said. Your article really struck a nerve with me. My son, who is 7, is overweight. At his last doctor’s appointment we both received a lecture on eating better and not eating bad foods and staying away from sugar. I felt horrible and ashamed as a mother that I let him get this way. He is maybe 10-15 pounds overweight. Since this appointment I have been purchasing healthier snacks and cautioning him about what he eats all while feeling guilty that I’m going to screw him up and make him insecure for life. Thank you for this article. I now know that I need to change the way I talk to him about food. He shouldn’t feel guilty for eating when he is hungry.


stellanorte on October 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm.

I still have so much trouble “being seen” as I walk or do much of anything outside, out in the world, as a fat woman. I much prefer to walk the treadmill and be “safe” inside and not seen. My horrible, spirit-crushing memories of being picked on as a slightly pudgy kid (seriously, it was so slight, that pudginess–I’ve seen photos of myself) and a plumper adolescent are still so strong! It’s just so not ok to target fat kids the way these ads are doing. How freakin blatant a call to hate do you need? They look like “Wanted” posters. And I guess they are. To be fat these days is to be a criminal. The whole campaign about Fighting Obesity from childhood on up just makes me sick.


goingloopy on October 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm.


That’s how you contact the Governor of Georgia. I just wrote asking for them to get rid of this ad campaign. It may not do any good, but it made me feel better.


tigi on October 13, 2011 at 11:43 pm.

I have nothing intelligent to add. What I want to say is that I just really wish “Fatsmack” was a segment on a talk show hosted by awesome fat ladies. At the very least, I’m going to use that term whenever I 1) give someone a much deserved lecture and 2) chase my cats from places they don’t belong. “HEY. Off the counter, Friday! FATSMACK!” “Quit trying to drink my coffee, Hermes. FATSMACK!” It’s going to get exciting in this house.


JessDR on October 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm.

“What I want to say is that I just really wish “Fatsmack” was a segment on a talk show hosted by awesome fat ladies.”

So… I happen to be a producer at my public access TV station. If Lesley and enough other awesome fat ladies in the Boston area are willing to be the “talent”, I hereby offer to produce this show.


Redonkbadonk on October 15, 2011 at 4:18 am.

If a show where fat people talked about fat issues etc was produced and streamed online or whatever as well I would be TOTALLY into watching it!


Patty on October 16, 2011 at 2:06 pm.

Ha ha! I love this! I am totally going to use “fatsmack” as a punctuating cry of authority. (Especially with my cats! LOL! I can’t stop laughing about this.)

My real comment, though, is to thank you for spinning this shit around and making me laugh in a situation that is otherwise so horrifying. I really needed that boost to help me move past the heartbreak and blind rage that all of these ads have provoked in me and keep fighting the good fight. FATSMACK!


Redonkbadonk on October 15, 2011 at 4:16 am.

I grew up in a food insecure household in Australia.

I remember, after reading you comment on exercise, when I was around 10 I really enjoyed playing many sports at school and became quite involved in those sports at the encouragement of the principal/headmaster (it was a very small, country school). We moved after a year and I was bullied at school during sports and excluded, etc. I never played sport again.


Heather on October 17, 2011 at 10:31 am.

How do we reconcile the idea that weight is genetic with ” I would argue that it is related to a lack of access, both to affordable foods necessary for a balanced diet, as well as safe places for kids to be active. ” which boils down to ‘fat kids are eating too much unhealthy junk food and not exercising enough’?. I’ve seen fat bloggers who talk about it as almost completely genetic and that your body won’t allow your weight to go up or down more than about 30lbs and those who, especially in the context of weight correlating with income or stigma and discrimination, say that people are fat because they’re not eating healthy or exercising enough.


Cate on October 17, 2011 at 11:57 am.

Ughhhh, that Georgia ad! “Being made fun of sucks! Well, what did you expect? Have you ever tried NOT being so gross and fat, Fatty McFatterson?” 🙁


E on October 18, 2011 at 5:31 pm.

Wow. I mean, wow. I’m getting a bunch of confused messages these days. Anti-bullying laws and campaigns, let’s save lives by accepting each other … then there’s the reason you’re bullied is cuz you’re fat awareness. Don’t expect fun, now go run! Plus you will die. Talk about encouraging the victim to blame themselves.


E on October 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm.

Also, I feel like those child obesity ads are going to end up in the Museum of Tolerance in the future. It’s pure hate propaganda.


Aylin on October 19, 2011 at 1:42 pm.

The ad is terrible. There has to be a better way to share the information that those drinks are bad for the body.
Firstly, can we all agree that Georgia kids (all kids) should have access to fresh, wholesome foods?
Eating well makes a person feel better, makes their body and brain work better. It’s better for the planet, and it saves lives.
It doesn’t matter what size anyone is or what their body fat percentage is. As a fair and just society (yeah, right), everyone deserves access to healthy food, and fast food, factory farms, and corn need to no longer be subsidized.
There is a food revolution going on (Food Day is Monday!). I think laying off body judgment should go hand in hand with it. We as a culture need to focus on making the food industry right. I fully support your position on fatness, Leslie. I really hope people feeling free to be fat does not in any way conflict or interact with changing the food industry. They are two completely separate issues. The Georgia campaign got them confused, and that is what makes it fail from a health and food perspective. That and the child abuse vibe all over it.


Kelly L. on October 21, 2011 at 10:31 pm.

My theory on food insecurity and its link with obesity, based on my own experience: Part of it is as mentioned above, you end up overeating when you do have food because you don’t know when you’ll have it again. But I also suspect it screws up your metabolism the same way dieting can. I’ve found that anytime I’m broke and barely eating, I gain weight, while when I have enough to eat my weight remains more stable. I think the body goes into panic mode and hangs on to whatever you put in it.


sarah on January 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm.

Newposts and podcasts PLEASE!


Roxarita on January 21, 2012 at 6:09 pm.

Where are you and The Rotund? I need my bullshit calling fat bloggers, especially during JANUARY! Maybe a post with blog recs while you are writing your book?


JessDR on February 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm.

I miss them too, Rox. Ragen Chastain (danceswithfat.com) is keeping me afloat in the meantime.


Alyssa on February 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm.

I really think society forgets about the emotional and mental health of a person and focuses solely on the physical. I feel so horrible for those kids on the Georgia ad. Their going to have their faces plastered everywhere with a reminder of how they aren’t good enough. Did the parents of those children know what they were going to do with the pictures? If I saw my kid’s face on an ad like that I would be in jail for assaulting whoever did it.


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