Friday, March 11, 2011

Slate: "Leave the fat kids alone"

A great article over at Slate by Daniel Engber , called “Leave the fat kids alone”, dives right into the midst of Law-based living—and our country’s disturbing methods of attempting to battle obesity.

In the article, Engber argues (having been an obese child himself) that the obsession with trying to transform obese children is actually counterproductive. He uses great research to show that this increased focus is actually making the situation worse, not better: it is proving ineffective at reducing obesity numbers, and is instead creating a generation of kids even more obsessed with--and now shamed about--their bodies.

The studies are fascinating examples of Romans 7, where Paul speaks of our inability to change our behavior through our willpower: Engber reports that kids who are shamed into dieting generally end up gaining more weight than their peers; they end up tripling in BMI and exercising less; and those who are teased about weight overwhelmingly fall into two categories—they increasingly become more obese, or they develop eating disorders instead. He also, shockingly, reports that 9.3% of American girls in high school attempt suicide, and the belief that they are fat (whether they are or not) is one of the leading risk factors.

More interesting—and disturbing—however, are the reported comments that he mentions as coming up from Slate readers during the obesity discussions. Slate readers, on the whole, tend to be highly-educated professionals. In discussions of how to fix the “obesity epidemic”, their comments are chilling in their callousness. One person argues that “Schools should actively stigmatize being fat…few things are more terrifying to a kid than being an outcast.” Another says, “We need to stop telling children to ‘love themselves the way they are’.”

Let’s stop and park there for a minute.

Take a moment and think about where we are in a society. How Law-based we still remain! Most of Slate’s readers (being of a liberal bent) prefer a strong separation of church and state. But removing the church from the state does not reduce judgementalism and human nature (if anything, removing the Gospel from the nation simply makes us more blind to our own judgmentalism and faults). No, our country simply has replaced religious-based moralism with an eco-organic-healthy-living moralism. Being “fat” is not only one of the last acceptable discriminations, but the overwhelming belief seems to be that we are not “hard” enough on kids--with a bit more tough love, they would eat right. If people just “had a little self control and put down the cake”, everything would be fine.

The Christian knows differently, though:
"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. ...For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (Rom 7:15,18 NIV)

You don’t change behavior by willpower. You certainly don’t change behavior by shaming people and eroding their confidence. For a dozen or more years, doctors and legislators have battled the obesity problem actively. And what do we have? A generation of kids obsessed with their weight, lacking self-confidence, feeling bullied and shamed by peers and parents and the government, and increasingly attempting suicide or falling into eating disorders. Oh, and by the way…the obesity rate is rising, not falling.

I am not going to pretend that I have an answer for the obesity problem. Evidence shows that body mass index is increasing in similar rates in every developed country in the world, so it is certainly not just an American problem. It will not be solved with gimmicks like improving school lunches or vending machine choices. I don’t have the silver bullet answer, and doubt that there is one.

What I do know, however, is that the answer is not shaming kids, giving them anxiety complexes, and sending home report cards with their weights on them to embarrass them and their parents. The Christian understands that simply knowing that a thing is right does not mean that you will be able to achieve it. A simple fact of human nature is that we all fail, all the time, to reach the goals we set. And the harsh weight of judgment on those failures has a tendency both to devalue the person and to begin in them a downward spiral into even worse behaviors.

Let us ignore for a moment those who are obese from factors largely out of their control—things like poverty (which vastly limits fruits/vegetables from the diet) or hormonal imbalances or metabolic disorders. Let us focus just on those who are overweight because they overeat. Why is it that people think overeating is different than any other addiction? Why is it that our answer to the obese is “try harder”, or you are just “fat and lazy”? Does that work? Would you tell an alcoholic that he just needs willpower to cure himself? (Look how that worked out for Charlie Sheen.) Does shaming a nymphomaniac cause her to stop her addiction to sex? Does sending a note to their parents stop an anorexic kid from seeing themselves in a negative light? Or do such things just make the situations worse?

The Bible teaches that our first step toward justification from our sin addiction comes in admitting that we cannot control our behavior. The first step of AA or any other addiction program says the same—you must admit that you are unable to achieve your results. So why is it that we think that if we just make kids feel bad enough, or give them a worse self-image, or embarrass them, that their diet somehow gets better?

Do you really think overweight people don’t know that they are overweight? Do you actually imagine that they are not already extremely sensitive to that fact, and worried about what people think? Do you truly believe that they don’t realize a better diet would help? Do you not think that they want to be healthy and live a long life?

The only successful recovery programs from addiction all start at the same place as the Bible (which is no surprise, since AA is overwhelmingly based upon Christian thought). We must first admit that we are powerless to create lasting change over our addiction. We must create space for quiet meditation, prayer, and self-inventory of our faults. We must realize the impact those faults have on our relationships. We must heal the disease (the addiction, or whatever is driving the overeating) before we begin working on the symptoms (the weight gain).

In short: no one can “force” someone’s behavior to change—even the person themselves. The government and schools need to focus on things that do not put the individual on trial: poverty, supermarket access, requiring PE in school. These are the scope of government’s interaction. We will never improve the situation by putting the harsh weight of judgment on a kid. We must avoid, at all costs, the mistake of a person seeing their value or justification comes through their weight (or grades, or height, or income, or any other measure of behavior).

The weight of the Law never makes things better. It only has value when it helps us realize our own inability to achieve it, so that we rely on a Power outside of ourselves.

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