A few days ago, Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the surgeon general, unveiled MyPlate, a new healthy eating guide intended to replace the Food Pyramid. This was connected to Obama’s larger initiative against childhood obesity, which includes projects to increase parents’ knowledge about diet and exercise, improving the quality of food in schools, and making healthy food more accessible for families. Often cited as ballast for the project is the statistic that almost twenty percent of children are overweight or obese, and that the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents has almost tripled since 1980.
The discourse about obesity, however, has not always been positive. Sometimes, it focuses more on shaming overweight people for their decisions, rather than encouraging healthy eating in all children and adolescents, regardless of their weight. In this context, it’s easy for children to feel that their inability to lose weight – which, as Obama is quick to emphasize, is due to many factors which are often beyond children’s control – is solely their fault. This is compounded by the fact that policymakers and influential voices, like Obama, often neglect the biases against overweight people that particularly affect women. In an op-ed for the New York Times, three sociology professors pointed out the need to combat these biases while simultaneously striving for healthier children.
According to the professors, overweight women are significantly more likely not to complete college, regardless of their ability, professional goals, or socioeconomic status. There was no such gap in educational attainment for overweight men. So the question is, why are overweight women more negatively impacted? The sociologists hypothesized a variety of causes:
“One explanation is that overweight girls are more stigmatized and isolated in high school compared with overweight boys. Other studies have shown that body size is one of the primary ways Americans judge female — but not male — attractiveness. We also know that the social stigma associated with obesity is strongest during adolescence. So perhaps teachers and peers judge overweight girls more harshly. In addition, evidence suggests that, relative to overweight girls, overweight boys are more active in extracurricular activities, like sports, which may lead to stronger friendships and social ties.”
The op-ed concludes with a call for changes on two levels – to promote, not just healthful behaviors, but “shifting attitudes.” This means providing psychological resources for teenage girls and increased mentoring opportunities. It also means being very sensitive to the fact that rhetoric around the obesity epidemic needs to frame the issue as one of public health, not individual failure. And, perhaps more importantly, influential figures need to make sure that overweight girls have access to encouragement, not just in terms of their physical health, but their academic achievement.
Michelle Obama’s latest initiative is important. But it’s equally crucial to have voices pointing out the ways that it could better promote its ambitious goals, and certainly given the fact that women are outpacing men in higher education, it’s disturbing to see that overweight women are lagging behind men. Childhood obesity is a problem that should be tackled in a large-scale way, but not at the expense of young women’s self-esteem.
Photo from madprime's Flickr photostream.