The Answer to Childhood Obesity? Mothers.

This column originally appeared in Palo Alto Patch.

Did you know McDonalds sells 6.5 million cheeseburgers a day?

Childhood obesity is in the news again. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, in partnership with UCLA, recently released its report: Overweight and Obesity among Children by California City.Turns out 38% of the children in our state are significantly overweight. And that means we’ll be hearing yet again about all the things we should be doing to solve this epidemic.

If we don’t watch out, we may get misguided ideas like the one Daddy Warbuck s Bloomberg is advocating to combating obesity: tax super-sized soft drinks. Seems kind of like shooting fish in a barrel if you ask me, but then again I am not expert on issues of weight, health, and nutrition. Wait, maybe I am.

You see, I’m a mother and that means I am the food and exercise gate-keeper in my family. What I buy, what I cook, how I eat, what I feed my children, what I do for exercise, and what I expect my children to do for exercise makes me the household expert. And it is this very expertise that is being ignored in the conversation about childhood obesity.

Over the years we have struggled with finding the golden ticket to solve this issue.  We’ve improved the free meal offerings for lower income children. We’ve banned the sale of soft drinks in schools.  We’ve upped the requirements for physical education. We’ve even reformulated the food pyramid.

But in all of these well-intentioned endeavors, no one has gone to the source, the mothers themselves, to ask, ‘what does obesity mean to you?’ and ‘how can we help you to ensure your children are as healthy as they can be’.

Discussions regarding obesity have acknowledged the role class plays in the issue. It is hard not to make that connection when looking at the results city by city in California. The poorest towns have the highest obesity rates such as Huntington Park where 54% of the children are grossly overweight. My guess is these towns also have the highest incidence of single motherhood and the highest rates of adult female obesity. Why then are these linkages being ignored?

Paternalistic measures, like the one Bloomberg is advocating, are aimed at controlling behavior, but don’t focus on getting at the root of maternal attitudes towards food and weight  At best, they imply mothers of overweight children are failures. How could that possibly be a recipe for success in changing behavior?

Think about it. You tell me my kid is obese and two things happen, a) I get defensive because the subtext is I’m not a good mother, and b) I ignore your advice because I don’t want to consider that, as the gate-keeper to my children’s health, I may actually be harming them.

A 2007 study called Bodies, Mothers and Identities: Rethinking Obesity and the BMI in the journal Sociology of Health and Illness, outlines the myriad of ways mothers think about their own weight, the food they feed their children, and what is healthy.  They looked at women at varying socieo-economic strata and found the rich=thin/poor=fat paradigm flawed.

In fact, they found that while our society tends to value the thin and trim mother, for some, asking a woman to ‘eat less and exercise more’, runs counter to her own understanding of the symbolic nature of food and her perception of her role in caring for the family.

For these women, being the mother who provides food and sacrifices herself for her family is more important than her own weight. She doesn’t have time to exercise because what little time she does have, she wants to devote to her children.

Further, for some women having a large, soft body into which her children can cuddle for comfort and to gain a sense of safety is the physical embodiment of good mothering. To these women, a thin mother is denying her children comfort and, by association, love.

Additionally the very word “obese’ is laden with undertones and judgement. Many of the women in the report who were obese, did not view themselves as such. They called themselves ‘chubby’, ‘cuddly’, and ‘overweight’. It is likely they might not recognize or want to define their children as obese either. So when reports come out telling us 38% of our children are obese, we prefer to think it must be someone else’s child, not our own.

When it comes to what and how we feed our children, again mothers have differing beliefs about what is best. As the report outlines, for some, particularly those who were raised with scarcity, having a full cupboard and piling their children’s plates high with food is a sign of bounty and good mothering.

For others, feeding small portions and keeping the cabinets clean of snack food is a sign of their devotion. A mother’s own upbringing has an immense impact on her perceptions of what it means to provide for her family. Who are we to tell her she is wrong?

As we all know, different cultures have differing perspectives on what is healthy. When I was a young child and considered a little heavy by American standards, my mother took me back to Norway. To my Norwegian family, I looked as though I was staving. They spent the summer fattening me up.

We see these alternative viewpoints playing themselves out across communities in our state and beyond. Latinos view weight far differently than Asians who view it differently from Whites and so on. Trying legislating obesity measures with that underlying dichotomy of values.

We need to be careful we don’t send the wrong messages as we work to reduce obesity in our state and country. It isn’t as simple as rich vs. poor or white vs .‘other’. We are hitting women at the heart of their roles as mothers when we tell them their children are obese. We need to find a way to work within their own value system as mothers and women. Only then will we begin to see the results we desire: children, who may not be thin by BMI standards, but are healthy.  Isn’t that the real goal?


3 responses to “The Answer to Childhood Obesity? Mothers.

  1. We all have a role to play in this. Parents, schools, individuals, communities…and the businesses that sell and market the super-sized foods and beverages that are causing the plague of obesity. As a mom, I think of public policies that reduce the onslaught of junk food as something that helps me out. Rather than being bombarded with ads and junk food targeted to my kid, I’d prefer to live in a community where healthier options are quick and easy to get, don’t cost a lot, and are fun and cool to kids. We went to our local science & industry museum yesterday, and let our 11 year old and his friend go off independently. We didn’t know the friend had money. They bought cinnamon rolls and skittles. The bag of skittles was 800 calories. That’s half the calories a kid needs in a day. Did he eat his dinner? No, he did not. So he got the calories but not a single nutrient. That’s a big part of the problem. We need our schools and places where kids hang out to offer choices that reinforce parents’ good decision-making. And yes, we need limits on portion sizes. 800 calories? That’s ridiculous. Thank you Bloomberg for helping out!

    • Kylie,
      I can fully relate. My big frustration is the post sports game junk food fest. My kids play a myriad of sports (school and club teams) and after each game they are often provided a drink (gatorade is a big favorite) and treat (usually something junky like chips). After they gobble down the junk food, they are not interested in eating a meaningful and healthy dinner. I know the parents mean well, but our children just don’t need a snack after every time they engage in a sporting activity.
      Thanks for reading and engaging.

      • I absolutely agree!!
        I’ve been considering starting a campaign called “Bring Back the Oranges” which would encourage parents to bring healthy snacks to sports events, so kids would get a little healthy recharge but then still have room for meals with their families. Family meals are so important.
        Thanks for your reply!

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