The Emotional Toll of Childhood Obesity

Why is it still okay to tease overweight kids?

Posted Sep 19, 2017

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Think about these questions:

  • Where do people learn that it is okay to call someone fat?
  • Where do kids learn that calling someone fat is tacitly acceptable bullying?
  • Can you think of another health condition for which kids are so easily ridiculed? 

Somehow, being overweight creates an open season for merciless taunting.

This is national childhood obesity awareness month. There will be all sorts of blogs and public service announcements about the problems of obesity in this nation, and special attention will be paid to the growing problems with obese youth. A lot of this will tell you things that you already know.

You already know many of these talking points because the problems attached to being too heavy have been stubbornly resistant to intervention. Still, it’s worth a quick review.

The formal definitions for “overweight” or “obese” are good places to start. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines childhood obesity as a formal diagnosis for any child with a Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 95th percentile or above. That means that a child whose BMI is at or greater than 95 percent of the population for that child’s age group is considered obese. "Overweight" is clinically defined as a BMI in the 85th percentile. You can read more about these issues and calculate your own or your child’s BMI here.  

You can also read about how common obesity at the same website using this link.

Briefly, the CDC notes that:

  • The number of obese children between the ages of two and 19 has remained fairly stable at about 17 percent of the population in the United States and affects about 12.7 million children and adolescents.
  • Obesity was higher among Hispanics (21.9 percent) and non-Hispanic blacks (19.5 percent) than among non-Hispanic whites (14.7 percent).
  • Obesity was lower in non-Hispanic Asian youth (8.6 percent) than in youth who were non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, or Hispanic.
  • The prevalence of obesity was 8.9 percent among 2- to 5-year-olds compared with 17.5 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds and 20.5 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds. Childhood obesity is also more common among certain populations.

This is all taken directly from the CDC website and covers the years 2011-2014. 

We could go on. There’s lots of data to make your eyes glaze over, but let’s make this personal. 

At the risk of making this seem like an Oprah special, I want to share that I was a fat kid. I’m using the term “fat” because that’s what one of my best friends suddenly called me when I was 11 years old while we waited outside for school to start. He came to school different that day, his hair slicked back instead of his typical bedhead, and he was wearing a newly placed gold chain around his neck. He had unbuttoned a few buttons on his shirt until the teachers made him button it back up. Until that day, he and I would spend recess pretending to be giant robots, lifting rocks and throwing them onto the ground, wreaking havoc on imagined hideouts of evil villains who threatened the world with nefarious schemes. That all changed one day and it changed so suddenly that I recall it viscerally, like our friendship burnt down the way a house disappears in a four-alarm fire. I literally remember the smell of the grass that day.

He arrived at school and I went to meet him excitedly, wondering if he’d watched the previous day’s episode of Gilligan’s Island. I was so much in my own world that I didn’t notice his new look at first. He turned his body slightly so as to avoid direct eye contact and he took at comb out of his back pocket and ran it through his oiled down hair. 

“What do you want, you stampede of elephants?”

That’s what he called me. It makes me laugh today because it is such an absurd thing to call anyone. Think of the aeronautics your tongue has to do in order to say “stampede of elephants.” That’s six syllables! 

Even back then it struck me as funny. We both knew I was chubby. I decided he had to be joking so I just asked him again about Gilligan’s Island.

“Why’re you asking, fat kid?”

That was when I started to realize what he was saying. I just looked at him. Other kids had gathered around and were smiling. This was the kind of drama that attracted a crowd.

“What…what do you mean?”

That was all I could muster. It was like I had entered an alternate universe. Like I said, it was no secret that I was chubby. But he was my best friend. There had been countless sleepovers and movies and shared celebrations. Now it wasn’t just that he was calling me fat. He had made fat my unique identity. I was the “fat kid.” He wasn’t even using my name.

If you want to know the epitaph, I can tell you that I challenged him to a fight. I went from horribly hurt to steaming angry. The whole class looked to recess with anticipation for our now properly scheduled scuffle and when the bell rang we went outside and he offered me a wicked smile.

“You’re fat,” he said. “You can’t fight me because you can’t catch me.”

He was right, of course. I couldn’t catch him. I spent the whole recess chasing him around, while kids and teachers laughed. I'm certain, thinking that they were watching a playful game of tag.

Our friendship ended with the finality of a collapsed bridge. 

Why go into all of this?

Like I said, I can still smell the grass on that day. I remember it like I remember the day I broke a limb. It is a seminal event in my childhood. And you’d be right to note that my ex-best-friend’s chiding did make me look at myself. It played some kind of role in my time at the gym and my changed and more healthy behavior at the dinner table, and even in the pride I took as my body changed.

But I’d trade all of that to have played more giant robots at recess.

Obesity is complex because it is culturally mediated, medically fraught, and emotionally wrecking.

Of course, bullying will happen. Of course, kids will be bullied for being overweight. And of course, it's not okay. But we can do something more than just stopping the bully; we can help the person being pushed around. Being heavy, after all, is no fun, and that’s even without the bullies. Gym class is miserable when you’re overweight. Riding a bike is awful. Even running to catch the train or the bus is a dreaded chore. 

If your child is overweight, seek help for him or her. If your child is obese, take him or her to a nutritionist. This is a problem for which there are literally hundreds of effective solutions. Don’t let these solutions go untried.

A version of this essay appeared on the website for Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. Steve Schlozman is a child psychiatrist and a writer. He has published two novels: The Zombie Autopsies and Smoke Above Treeline.