May 9, 2023

Is Overweight the New Normal for Kids?

With over ⅓ of all children, adolescents and young adults overweight or obese, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing overweight youth depicted in the mainstream media with greater frequency.

Last year, in a negative portrayal, Pixar’s Wall-E depicted a future world where humans flee a polluted earth to live a life of leisure (served by robots) in outer space. Adults and children alike become obese, unaccustomed to any activity whatsoever.

This year, Pixar’s film Up also features an obese protagonist: a cute overweight adolescent named Russell. The message is it’s who the kid is deep down that counts, and Russell’s weight is portrayed in a neutral to positive (cute) light.

The show That’s So Raven recently concluded a four-year run on the Disney Channel and starred Raven Symone, an overweight young woman.

Those of you with younger children may have seen a new lead character on Sesame Street – Chris Robinson – an overweight young man.

For adults, the trend is even clearer. Following the success of Camryn Manheim’s character on The Practice, the Lifetime network has introduced of an overweight heroine in Drop Dead Diva and Fox is launching a new show this month called More to Love, which matches plus-size dates with a bachelor boasting “a big waist and an even bigger heart.”

Our colleagues at Wellspring UK report a recent dust up in the British media regarding a professor who criticized media organizations for promoting “fat stars who [are] helping to make being overweight acceptable.” The specific program in question is a BBC show called Gavin and Stacey, starring an overweight actor named James Corden, but the controversy cites other overweight celebrities (Eamonn Holmes, Ruth Jones, Beth Ditto) as contributing to the perception that being overweight is the new norm.

If a child begins to view being overweight as normal, is she more likely to become overweight herself? A new study from researchers at the Institute of Prevention Research at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California seems to indicate that the answer is yes.

The researchers conducted in-school surveys among 617 students ages 11-13 from the greater Los Angeles area. They found that overweight adolescents were more likely to have overweight friends than their normal-weight peers.

“Although this link between obesity and social networks was expected, it was surprising how strong the peer effect is and how early in life it starts,” said lead author Thomas Valente, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

The study appears in the August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Previous data had shown a connection between overweight adults and their social peers. However, the USC study used more advanced statistical modeling techniques than previous research and the association remained strong.

Lobbying in favor of this new “norm” is the so-called “fat acceptance movement.” In an article on this phenomenon last week in the New York Times, this movement labels the obesity problem: “the obesity epidemic booga booga booga.”

This movement – a loose alliance of therapists, scientists and others – holds that all people, “even” fat people, can eat whatever they want and, in the process, improve their physical and mental health and stabilize their weight.

“Fat acceptance” ideas date back more than 30 years, but have lately edged into the mainstream, thanks in part to public hand-wringing by celebrities like Oprah, Kirstie Alley and the tennis player Monica Seles, who said she had to “throw out the word ‘diet’ ” to deal with her weight gain. (Oprah now cites her goal as being not “thin,” but “healthy and strong and fit.”)

Wellspring absolutely supports the idea of accepting people of all sizes and viewing overweight people as no different from non-overweight people in every way – except for the obvious health risks. We abhore the prejudice and negativity directed at overweight people and find such attitudes reprehensible. This does not mean that we support all aspects of the “fat acceptance” movement, however.

As Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard recently asserted along these lines, “Virtually everyone who is overweight would be better off at a lower weight. There’s been this misconception, fostered by the weight-is-beautiful groups, that weight doesn’t matter. But the data are clear.” Weight certainly does matter. Obesity creates enormous social and vocational challenges, as well as the more obvious adverse health consequences. We support the acceptance of overweight people in all walks of life, but the reality is that social prejudices do not change easily, with or without Wellspring’s blessings. Wellspring exists to help those overweight people who want to make the change to live a healthier life – and that life will also be much easier without the all too pervasive experiences of prejudice due to excess weight.