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Selling Weight Loss to Children [Are kids the next casualties in the diet wars?]

Posted Apr 19 2011 12:09am

And yet Willy Wonka always managed to stay so slim...

“Tell me I’m not angry for no reason!!!” was the subject line on an e-mail from Gym Buddy Lindsey. I tried to imagine what would be so upsetting as to require the use of a double negative and extraneous punctuation.  That it continued with “I’m so pissed!!!!!!!!!!” only made me more intrigued. (And more entertained – you have to know Lindsey, she’s a very passionate person! We’re friends for good reason is all this tempest-in-a-teapot is saying.) She writes, “I just saw a commercial of a girl no older than fifteen talking about how she didn’t fit in at school because she was overweight, but “after joining this diet program, she fits in with friends.” I believe it’s wonderful to be healthy and to promote healthy habits, but by appealing to kids by saying they won’t fit in unless the scale says a smaller number is a blunt way of saying “you’ll never be good enough.”"

I checked out the site of the popular diet company (so popular that if a local radio station doesn’t quit mentioning it every 5 minutes I’m going have to find a new morning show, AHEM) that she referenced and sure enough they have a whole section of their site dedicated to “ Young Adult Success Stories” with pictures of young – some very young – looking kids along with a blurb about how they feel after losing XX pounds. Oh, and of course their “before” and “after” weights are listed. Indeed, one gir l who looks about 14 writes, “Before I lost weight on the program I always thought I was going to be the “big one” in the crowd. I wanted to lose weight so I would have more self esteem and fit in with the other kids in my class. After losing 25 pounds on the program I am happier, healthier and feel more comfortable about being Me.”

My heart breaks for her. The teen years are transformative and also traumatic. On one hand, being the “fat kid” sucks. While I didn’t have this particular issue in high school – don’t worry I had lots of other things to shatter my self-esteem! – it doesn’t take much understanding to recognize how horribly many overweight teens are treated. MTV even has an entire show, “ I Used To Be Fat “, dedicated to just this premise. No one can blame “Taylor T” for wanting to shed the pounds and fit in. But on the other hand, tying her ability to “be Me” to her weight is a very slippery slope and one that many an adult woman has wished they’d never started down. And of course there’s the issue of using teenagers to pimp weight-loss products. It’s one thing to see Kirstie Alley shake her moneymaker in the Jenny Craig commercials but quite another to see the sweet face of a teen awkwardly hunched in that trying-so-hard-to-look-casual way. Many of our “Me”s are so fragile when we’re young. Heck I even get a little worried when I see Jennifer Hudson schilling for Weight Watchers even though she’s technically an adult now.

The “obesity epidemic” is already one of the most controversial topics you can bring up but if you want to really rile people up talk about childhood obesity. Michelle Obama didn’t pick that as her platform on accident. Everyone from Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution to the checker at your local grocery store who eyes all the boxes of Fruit Roll-Ups you are buying (I swear they were for a craft project for preschool! They cut shapes out of them! And then stick them to stuff! They’re very sticky!!) has an opinion about what we feed our kids and how to teach them about food.

In one corner you have the The Children Are Fine camp that advocate a more hands-off approach to kids’ weight. If a child is soothed with an ice cream bar then so be it, food is an emotional experience. And if a child chunks up a bit, well they’re probably going to hit a growth spurt soon. Plus the more you make food an issue the less able they are to listen to their natural hunger cues – something kids are born good at. At least until we train it out of them.

In the other corner you have the Early Intervention camp that points out the mental, physical and social toll that being overweight takes on a child and figures that the sooner you nip bad behavior in the bud the easier it will be to correct. Sure kids are good at choosing to eat what they need but our obesogenic environment can drown out their natural cues and so we need to teach them. Our society is so un-vigilant with food and exercise these days that parents and doctors feel they need to be hyper-vigilant, even if that means intervening as young as two. And after all, what’s wrong with teaching kids about healthy food and exercise?

No matter which methodology you subscribe to, the social impacts of being overweight can’t be ignored and so it makes sense from a marketing perspective to use that desire to be liked to lure in a whole new demographic of dieters into their multi-billion dollar machine. Orson Scott Card wrote a short story about what would happen if there were machines that fed you any kind of delectable food you wanted and then other machines that would magically make the accumulated fat disappear. How would society react if our weight was entirely under our control? In the story people stopped caring so much about who was fat or thin, mostly because it was so easy to be either. Of course, being Orson Scott Card, it also turned out that aliens had set up the magic machines and were using them to farm humans for fat which they then turned into energy, disposing of the humans once their fat potential had been drained. (There are a lot of societies disastrously lost to Science Fiction, just saying.) My point – besides the fact that Orson Scott Card rivals Ray Bradbury for writing deeply unsettling fiction (Don’t believe me? Read “The Shepard.” I still get a full body shiver every time I think about it.) – is that if the social stigma were taken away from being overweight then we’d be able to see using teens in diet ads for the ridiculous ploy that it is.

Honestly I still haven’t figured out which camp I’m in when it comes to teaching my kids about healthy eating. I vacillate between both extremes – I let my kids have doughnuts for breakfast this morning because a friend brought them over and I was too tired to object and yet there hasn’t been a fruit snack, can of pop or even white crackers in our house in years. (Nothing says great parenting like inconsistency!) But I do know that I want my kids to know that I will love, adore and accept them no matter what they weigh and using kids in diet advertisements feels like it undermines that message.

How do you feel about using kids in weight-loss advertisements? Is it providing a much-needed service helping teens get healthier or is it just one more way to make them feel bad about themselves? Do you prefer early intervention or a wait-and-see approach for kids? Do you have a favorite-yet-ookie Sci Fi writer?

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