Do Anti-Obesity Campaigns Hurt Overweight Women?

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.


W. C
W. Cabout a year ago

Thanks for the article.

William C
William C1 years ago

Thank you for the information.

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado7 years ago

Do you imply that fat people (women) have mental problems?

Lika S.
Lika P7 years ago

I think it's difficult these days. It's high paced, and women, who often are the meal providers to the family, are in a time crunch... Get the kids ready for school (breakfast and lunch in mind), go to work, come home, wash dishes, start supper, check kids homework, laundry, wash more dishes, etc... the weekend or day off comes, she has to go to the grocery store, fill up the car, drop off and pick up dry cleaning, make doctor appointments, etc...

When does she have time to make a healthy meal, that's not too difficult to pull off? If she is on her feet all day, the last thing she wants is to have to stand some more over the stove... Anyway, it's helpful to have quick meals, and then, of course, often, we eat because we're tense or bored or what have you. And when you're over worked and underslept, guess what? You eat to make up for the energy not regained from sleep, in which case, weight gain, not just from eating to make up the energy, but lack of sleep slows your metabolism. So, if there is an eating disorder, it's a triple (or worse) whammy.

So, I think a good start is to teach how to make healthy meals that don't take very long. such as fajitas or other stir fries.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal7 years ago

Pushing away the plate is not enough. Working on mind, body, and spirit together is a healthy approach.

dawn w.
Dawn W7 years ago

As a kid I would go outside every day,ride my bike,climb trees,swim,play kickball,all day,eating maybe a bowl of cereal for breakfast and later stopping in for dinner-the rest of the day I was excercising.Yet I was still overweight.Obviously,my body just wants to hold on to fat,no matter what I do.Ten years ago I was so sick of being fat that I went to extremes to lose weight.Since my body is stubborn and simply eating well and excercising didn't work,I had to nearly starve myself to death and excercise until I couldn't stand anymore.Several times I got very sick,becoming dizzy,nauseated,and so weak I collapsed.I didn't care,this was the only way I could lose weight,and I lost 50 lbs.Eventually,though,I couldn't keep up those difficult extremes,and I was so unhealthy,I stopped and gained the weight back.Now,I walk as much as I can,but it's hard because I'm severely anemic and a minute into a walk my heart feels like it's going to explode.My own mother told me I felt this way because I was fat,but no,It turned out I was severely anemic,that makes it very difficult,and dangerous,to do too much physical activity.I eat as healthy as I can,fruit,veg,grains,legumes.But also a lot of junk.Why?Because I'm an emotional eater and I feel like crap about myself.Uncontrollable overeating is an emotional problem.If it caused me to lose weight instead of gain it,there would be sympathy all over for the place me.But I'm not asking for sympathy.I don't want pity.All I ask is to be (continued)

Petra Luna
Petra Luna7 years ago

Some people eat under stress, others out of boredom, and more... When out of boredom, we don't realize how many trips we make to the fridge or pantry... and it's hard to document too, because it's so subconscious.

So it would be great to find out WHY one is overweight, and if it's because of compulsive eating through stress or boredom. Other people eat relatively healthy, and are still overweight.

Masha Samoilova
Past Member 7 years ago

interesting comments

Adam Robb
J. Adam Robb7 years ago

I agree on the mentoring part, as overweight teen girls need more positive role models. And they seem to look alot of times towards celebraties wheather its singers or actresses. But the pressures that celebs deal with forces them to downsize, leaving these girls hanging. Celebs like Queen Latifah, Valerie Bertinelli, Kirsti Alley, Jennnifer Hudson who have all lost weight with Nutra-System or Weight- Watchers programs. Its like they become famous regardless of they're size, but rather than try to be a role model, they'd rather get more work or more acceptence whatever it is and go on these weight loss programs. Queen is probably the most realistic about it staying healthy & a big girl says alot about her, but that's only one person. I for one love the big girls and do my best to support them in the entertainment industry, watching their movies or buying their music, and just being a fan. And if Melissa McCartney is reading this, please, Please stay as Beautiful as you are now, Loved you in "Mike & Molly's" and just saw you in "Bridemaids"
So in all, can we collectively back some or even better alot of the pressure off of celebs who are also big girls so that younger girls growing up have someone to look up to. And Is Mo'nique's Fat Chance still being done in Aug. on Oxygen Network, and props to her for doing that in the first place. I've missed the last couple of years, but have the first 3 on tape...Yeah, Fat Girls!!!

ShellyWhiteDove Schoenroc

Chloe L, where have YOU been? Most schools now have huge cuts in PHYSical education because of the budget. Most children only get some sort of phyisical activity twice a week, if not less. No one is asking for FAT acceptance, (btw, thats very intolerant of you) they are asking for TOLERANCE and compassion. You do realize not all over weight people are MORBIDLY obese, right? You can be just 20 pounds over your ideal weight to be considered morbid obese. Get over yourself, and please, for the love of all that is holy, if you cant have compassion for folks who suffer, get hell...o out of your chosen profession! No offense, you are NO physican and have no clue as to WHY some folks are overweight...guess you have never suffered from depression, metabolic syndrome or anything else. Grow a heart and HELP someone help themselves to be better!