During the Olympics, Nike ran an advertisement featuring Nathan Sorrell, a young man from London, Ohio. Sorrell, who is reported to be 5’ 3” and 200 lbs., was featured in the ad running in a pair of Nike shoes and a sweat-drenched shirt. Sorrell, who I suppose many folks would consider to be a chubby boy, never spoke, but Nike spoke for him: "Greatness. It's just something we made up. Somehow we've come to believe that greatness is a gift reserved for a chosen few, for prodigies, for superstars, and the rest of us can only stand by watching. You can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand, not some precious thing. Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We're all capable of it. All of us."
While many people found the ad inspirational (it was an instant web hit and reposted ubiquitously), the story behind the ad and the young boy was anything but inspirational. The boy featured in the commercial, Nathan, talked openly about vomiting during the filming of the commercial, noting that the director was “lenient” on him for giving him time to recover.
The expectation that any child can put on a pair of shoes and start running and that he continue to run—to the point of vomiting—and that doing so is a sign of “greatness,” indicates an investment in children taking responsibility for their weight. I’m not saying that children shouldn’t learn responsibility or that having goals or commitment isn’t admirable, but goals and commitments need to be reasonable and healthy.
Recently, up and coming tennis star Taylor Townsend was told she was too fat for the U.S. Open and that the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) had decided not to sponsor Townsend to attend the U.S. Open—even though she was the number one seed. In a later statement to the press, Patrick McEnroe, the USTA’s General Manager, said the reason for withholding funding was ultimately about Townsend’s “health:” “Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long term development as a player.” Townsend’s mother paid her expenses for the U.S. Open.
Juxtaposing these two highly visible representations of fatness among children and adolescents and conversations about their bodies and “health,” there are some pretty mixed messages being sent. In one case, a young man is supposed to run until he vomits in a ditch in order to “get healthy.” In another case, a young woman who has already proven her ability to run up and down a court without vomiting is supposed to do more to get “healthy” before she continues playing tennis. Sorrell has to “prove himself” by running himself into a froth, even though he may be great at lots of other things; Townsend has to prove herself by being thin(ner), even though she already has the athletic chops. In both cases, if you’ll pardon the mixing of sports references, the goalposts keep shifting. Are kids seen as fat supposed to run and exercise or not?
What seems to remain consistent is the idea that a fat child or adolescent simply can’t do enough to prove him or herself as “great” or “healthy.” Our cultural narrative that anyone who’s fat is lazy (i.e. not great) and/or unhealthy is too strong for them to overcome; the burden for proving one’s self “great” or “healthy” while also being fat is too high. It’s rumored that Sorrell has been promised another Nike commercial if he loses weight. Townsend won the girls' junior doubles title at the U.S. Open. All of this suggests that being physically active or winning a title isn’t enough; thinness must be obtained. This appears to be just another case of “health” being talked about when what people actually mean is “thin.”
If what we really want is healthy children, then what we need to do is own up to the fact that fatness and thinness are caused by all different sorts of reasons and many of them may not have anything to do with how healthy a person is.
Instead, how about we send kids the message that movement—regardless of their size—is a good thing but that running until one vomits may not be healthy? Or that people, regardless of body size, may still be great at lots of things, including tennis? Maybe we should make sure children understand that sometimes people do have physical limits—for all kinds of reasons—and that some external definition of what it means to be “great” or “healthy” may not always work for everyone because we are all so different.
Surely we can teach children that working to the best of one’s ability and being good at something are admirable traits but that body size isn’t the only litmus test for either.