Childhood obesity, in photos
Dealing with a fresh wave of grief, today I sorted through my mom’s purse for the second time since I brought it back with me, about this time last year. I’d already taken all the packets of tissues and old receipts–most of the bag detritus that collects over time–out of there, so today I ended up going through her huge wallet. Besides the now-useless collection of things like funky-shaped store credit cards in my biodad’s name (they split up in 1981; I haven’t seen him since 1986) and Blue Cross cards from 1985, I found her store of wallet photos.
Gosh. Stabby describes it pretty well.
One of the things I couldn’t help but notice, trying to distract myself from starting to blubber all over the place, was that in the Shrine to Urocyon 1976-1987 section, that kid looked much leaner than I remembered through the mental filters I’ve since picked up. It’s funny the things that will catch a person’s eye sometimes. (I also didn’t remember my hair going so reddish before all the brown pigment came in on top!) Partly to make a point to myself–and partly to make a larger point in general–I scanned a few photos.
Here’s an assortment of photos from ages 3-6. Looks like the same kid displaying an expected rate of growth, eh? There is one major difference*, though: a few months before the last portraits of this child were taken, she was declared Overweight! (complete with underlining and exclamation point) on paper, when the school/health department collected their regular child measurement data, thus becoming part of the horrible Childhood Obesity Epidemic. You’ll notice that she is sitting up very straight, and looks happy and confident enough. Her strong-looking shoulders and arms already stand out. At that point, she was also the tallest kid in the school’s first grade, and one of only two who were 4 feet tall going in (perception later confirmed by seeing a sample of the health documents**). The only other kids who came close in measurements were members of the same ethnic /racial group.
Going by the available, more recent 2000 CDC data on girls (PDF), she looks to be in the 99th percentile for both height and weight. Fiddling dates to use the CDC’s child BMI calculator, ” Based on the height and weight entered, the BMI is 22.8 , placing the BMI-for-age at the 98th percentile for girls aged 6 years 7 months. This child may be obese and is likely to have health-related problems because of weight and should be seen by a healthcare provider for further assessment.”
I had to fiddle the dates by 10 years, and do not know how these figures have changed from the ones current at the time. There are plenty of claims that BMI has gone up across the board.
The next portrait available is from December 1987, when she is a couple of months shy of 13. In the meantime, she has taken to avoiding cameras, and was upset enough at being forced to sit for Christmas portraits that she refused to remove her jacket. Note the half-grimace, and the shoulder slump. By this point, she insists on keeping her pointed-out-as-fat arms covered, and has developed a habit of hunching in around her D-cup breasts. She has consistently been classified as overweight since the last portrait, and is now verging on “obese”. She stands at 5’7″, close to her full adult height, and weighs a little under 170 lbs. (Again, the only other kids at her school whose measurements came close were others of local Tutelo/Cherokee heritage, including some who identified as Black.) She has started engaging in disordered eating behaviors, with a weight goal of 125. Her broad, flat face is on the verge of sinking in.
Using the same chart and calculator, how do her height and weight compare? By now, she squeaks in at “only” the 93rd-94th percentile for height, and the 94th-95th for weight. “Based on the height and weight entered, the BMI is 26.2 , placing the BMI-for-age at the 95th percentile for girls aged 12 years 7 months. This child may be obese and is likely to have health-related problems because of weight and should be seen by a healthcare provider for further assessment.”
Some school districts are now sending home BMI report cards, based on the measurements they collect. “Critics worry about stigmatization of overweight children, misinterpretation of BMI results sent home to parents, and placement of children on harmful diets.” The methods used to determine BMI for adults are dodgy enough; the CDC’s information on BMI as used for children and teens inspires even less confidence. Neither method has much connection to reality near either end of the scale, nor do they distinguish body fat from lean body mass.
If I didn’t know that the girl in question was me, I would not cringe and start thinking “fat cow” before even starting to look at these photos. Keeping more in the way of perspective is why I decided to use third person references. Looking at them now with a little detachment, I see rude health. Except for the signs of strain starting to show in the last one. Raising awareness of the Dread Childhood Obesity is so beneficial for mental health, in a lot of cases.
Another one that caught my eye, once I started thinking along these lines:
This is one of my younger cousins, probably taken in 1998 judging by the state of his teeth. He was also officially “overweight”–probably “obese”, since they’d started using that distinction–at the time of this photo, though I am not even going to guess at his measurements at that point. Another statistic in the Dread Obesity Epidemic, though–as a boy–he has been socialized to internalize it less. He’s still rated as “obese” by BMI, since at last check he was a little shorter than I am while outweighing me by >40 lbs. Of muscle. He still plays baseball, and has added football (defensive line) and weight training since then. He’s really bulked up a lot the past few years; our family is good at that!
You can probably get an idea of what I think about the standards used to declare a Childhood Obesity Epidemic. (Besides the adult version.) You can probably also get an idea of how I feel about the stated goals of making us healthier and happier through a focus on pointing out and Preventing Childhood Obesity, based on experience. Some people are truly out of touch with reality.
* Before this, the sense God gave a turnip was applied to measurements and norms. I was about twice the size of my (SE Asian) pediatrician’s daughter of the same age, and he just concluded that I was a very healthy Amazon child. I have yet to reach his projected height of 6’4″, alas. How much of the gap comes from starving myself in early adolescence, I have no idea.
** Circa 1989, when I could not do PE because of a torn knee ligament, I was set to doing something or another with the whole year’s student health files to keep me busy. Yes, I peeked, and got angry even then, when the self-hatred was strong.