“I’m a little bit fat,” said the eight-year-old, looking away while I adjusted the adult small life jacket around her belly.
“Oh no, Sweetie, don’t say that! You have a good, strong build!” I replied cheerfully, wondering how many times she’d heard that before. Because the truth is, she was fat.
When we grab life jackets for the Grade 3 students taking the water safety course I volunteer with, we lifeguards make quick judgments on size: child, youth or, for a few per class, adult small or adult medium. When you’re dealing with kids this age, an adult life jacket means only one thing: they’re overweight. Not a little, but a lot.
We tuck the adult life jackets into the kid-and-youth pile, and grab them discretely to minimize embarrassment, but c’mon, the linings of adult life jackets aren’t the same colour. And a kid who needs an adult one looks exactly how you’d expect a kid needing an adult life jacket to look: not especially tall, not particularly broad shouldered just… corpulent. Doughy. Soft.
It hurts to hear a little girl say apologetically, “I’m a little bit fat,” as part of her day-to-day life. I hate the idea of skinny minis with eating disorders saying it, but just as much—given the statistical realties of Canada, where approximately 26 percent of kids ages two to 17 are overweight or obese—I hate hearing a chubby little girl say it. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about these things. And I wonder, has anyone in her family tried to do anything about it? And if not, why not?
Recently, Manhattan socialite Dara-Lynn Weiss drew a lot of flak for her personal essay in the April 2012 issue of Vogue about putting her then-seven-year-old daughter on a strict diet to curb her obesity.
Weiss’s article was an over-the-top cringe-fest, with anecdotes about preventing her daughter from eating a salad nicoise to throwing public sh*t-fits like dramatically dumping out a hot chocolate at Starbucks. This lady be cray-cray, was the blogosphere’s general consensus.
But was Weiss worse than the hundreds of thousands of parents who do nothing to help their overweight or obese children reach a healthier body weight, thus condemning their kids to a lifetime of compromised health?
Statistics Canada’s 2007–2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey found just over 17 percent of children and youth were overweight (body mass index [BMI] in the 85th to 95th percentile), and nine percent were obese (BMI greater than 95th percentile), putting them at risk for a variety of health concerns. Recently released data from the 2009-2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey reveals that these rates are on the rise, with 19.8 percent of kids aged 5 to 17 classified as overweight, and 11.7 percent classified as obese.
According to Canada’s Childhood Obesity Foundation, short- and long-term complications associated with childhood obesity include Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol, liver disease, bone and joint problems, respiratory problems like asthma, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, early puberty in girls, fatigue and skin infections due to sweat getting trapped in folds of skin.
One of the more insidious side effects of obesity is that it can age kids, reducing the quality of their younger years. “We are seeing a lot of medical problems you would normally see in older people, in people of younger and younger ages. Type 2 diabetes is one. Fatty liver disease is another. Obesity at a young age can affect children’s health now and later,” says Arya Sharma, MD, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network and a professor of medicine at Edmonton’s University of Alberta.
Yet many Canadian parents chronically underestimate their kids’ weight. In a 2007 study published in the medical journal Canadian Family Physician, 22 percent of parents wrongly identified their normal-weight kids as underweight; 63 percent of parents mistakenly classed their overweight kids as normal weight; and a further 63 percent of parents of obese children considered them to be only overweight.
Denial is insidious, and so is the need to preserve self-esteem. “If we have a difficult time realizing we are overweight or obese, then we will not be able to see it in our own children,” says Natasha Barber, a Vancouver-based registered clinical counsellor and registered dietitian.
And so we tell ourselves we’re curvy, and not among the 59 percent of Canadian adults who are overweight or obese. We tell our overweight and obese children they’re “solid” and “strong,” as if they’re brawny little heavyweights. But they’re not.
The 2007–2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey found that fitness levels of the nation’s children, youth and young adults have declined “significantly” since 1981. At age 12, boys and girls are now taller than they were in 1981, but they’re neither as strong nor as flexible. The rates of childhood obesity are a result of more body fat not more muscle. According to Canada’s Physical Activity Guides for Children and Youth, more than half of Canadian children and youth between ages five and 17 are not active enough for optimal growth and development. Among young adults, sports participation is dropping, not growing; according to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadians ages 15-plus actively participating fell from 45 percent in 1992, to 28 percent in 2005. At the end of the day, the youth obesity crisis is indicative of something greater: the youth fitness crisis, an overall weakening of young Canadians’ health and strength. And maybe framing it that way is the best way forward. It’s almost a paradox: To fix the obesity crisis, we need to ignore the obesity crisis. Not the way we’ve been doing so far (collective heads in sand), but by reframing the issue, focusing on getting our kids healthier, says Dr. Sharma, whether or not that also causes weight loss—which it often does.
When talking with kids about fitness “make your language about health and energy levels. ‘I think you’re exhausted because you’re not getting enough sleep.’ ‘You’ll have more energy if you eat breakfast.’ (Skipping breakfast is tied to weight problems.) ‘Getting more exercise will help your concentration.’ Focus on behaviour. Weight is not a behaviour,” says Dr. Sharma. It is, however, a strong general indicator of wellness, so we ignore it at our peril. Ultimately, the concern shouldn’t be getting skinny, but ensuring our kids are healthy enough to run and play all day long, all summer long, like previous generations have. “Children who are physically active tend to report higher self-esteem and have better well-being. When our kids aren’t getting enough exercise or playing sports, they are missing out on valuable experiences that build confidence, teach them how to be part of a team and how to make friends, and about accomplishment and dealing with defeat,” says Barber.
As the feminist mom of a tween girl, I find myself particularly weight-obsessed. Strong, fast and lean muscle are words that come up frequently in our household. So are Photoshop, anorexia and body dysmorphia. I don’t want her to starve herself, finding thinspiration in heroin-chic models, but I also don’t want her to think that being fat is somehow more progressive, or more natural, than being healthfully lean. I don’t want her to sit out track and field because she can’t torch her way through 100-metre sprints, or drop out of swimming lessons because she can’t swim 500 consecutive metres (two things she’s awesome at).
A fit, active tween has the best chance of becoming a fit, active teen—which is crucial for girls, whose self-esteem peaks at age nine and then plummets. American studies show that by 15, girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer a major depressive episode. But when adolescent girls participate in sports, they are inoculated against some of the greatest difficulties associated with being female in our culture. Study after study has linked sports participation (think high school jockettes, not elite competitive athletes) with having higher self- confidence and self-esteem and better body image. Compared to their non-athletic peers, some studies show that they also do better academically, are more likely to gradate from high school and pursue post-secondary studies, experience lower levels of stress and depression, delay sex (early sexual initiation is statistically more likely to involve coercion of the female partner), are less likely to experience teen pregnancy and are less likely to combine sex with drugs or alcohol, which increases the possibility of risky sexual behaviour.
To me, those facts—from more than two decades of academic studies—speak for themselves: sports empower girls. And boys. (Moms and dads too.)
All of this evidence points to a pressing national, indeed global, problem—that more and more kids are out of shape. And we are not doing these children any favours by ignoring it. Without intervention, these kids are at greater risk for ailments ranging from heart disease to diabetes to depression. At the end of the day, it’s obvious: We need to turn our fatboys—and girls—slim.
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