You may have seen or heard something about a campaign in Georgia to address 'childhood obesity,' using the label 'Strong4Life.' The above picture, of Marilyn Wann, is using the same design scheme as the campaign, in order to fight back at the fat shame deeply and pervasively embedded into this campaign. There are a lot of insightful blog posts about this campaign out there, so I won't begin to list the problems with the campaign, I'd urge you to search them out. Better yet, if you're interested in finding out more about the efforts taken to counter this hateful campaign, join the "Stop Strong4Life's Fat Shaming Campaign" Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/344255848935079/).
What I do want to talk about is my childhood experience with being singled out for a public health intervention due to my fatness. I just turned 41, so this experience happened well before the current 'obesity epidemic' fear mongering moral panic, and may provide some light on how these things worked in a less harmful climate for fat children. I will be sharing some secondhand knowledge about another individual, and I apologize for this, but it is needed in order to describe my own experiences in this program. I won't be naming the person, of course, but should they happen to read it, and would like details removed, then I will honor this request.
In the spring of 1986, when I was in my final year of junior high (ninth grade), I was summoned to the Assistant Principal's office. When I got there, I was among a small group (maybe a dozen others) of fat peers, and we were informed that we had been chosen to participate in a weight-loss group. We had permission forms to take home for our parents to sign, and if we had permission, we'd then spend one day a week for the rest of the school year (missing class to do so) learning how to lose weight.
If I remember correctly, at least at the first meeting, there was one or two women from NIH (the National Institutes of Health) who were providing the framework and materials for this program. It turns out that one of our peers, a boy one grade behind mine, had been enrolled in this program at NIH, and had lost a lot of weight. I don't recall if he was part of a study at NIH, and to what degree he interacted with NIH in order to follow this program. Was he meeting with someone at NIH once a week, was he enrolled in something that required more supervision, including perhaps overnight stays, or was he simply following a program at home, with occasional check-ins with the folks at NIH? The one thing I remember hearing was that part of the reason this program was started in our school was because it would help support the boy with the large weight-loss maintain his weight-loss.
I had many thoughts in that initial meeting, the first of which was embarrassment. I quickly imagined some memo being circulated among all the teachers, asking for them to pick their fattest students for this program, and wondering which one of my teachers recommended me (or was it all of them!). This probably didn't happen, but at that age, the last thing I wanted was any public acknowledgement that I was fat. Not that I was in denial about my fatness, or that I wanted to pretend it wasn't there, but I did want to pretend that the bias against fat people wasn't there, so anytime I was made aware that others recognized my fat self, it was as if I was being exposed as well to their negative beliefs about fatness. Plus, teens at that age are embarrassed by all sorts of attention like this.
I was 15 years old when this happened. I had reached my full height by age 12 (5'5), and I already had the body of a 'woman' by 12, as well. I also weighed 150 pounds by age 12. Today, at the same height, 150 would have me squeaking into the 'overweight' category by a few hairs, but as a 12-year-old, I was the fattest of the fat, and indoctrinated accordingly. By the time I was recruited for this government subsidized weight-loss program, I weighed 220 pounds (by comparison, when I graduated 3 years later at 18, I weighed somewhere between 260-280 pounds). I give you this information to establish my degree of fatness as a youth. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have been fat for every second of my life, because this is how I was raised.
We all are a complex mix of identities, and when we come to consciousness about these various identities happens in different times and places for each of us. I know that, after I was aware of my status as a girl and as a white girl, my next awareness of an axis of identity was my fat identity. My fat identity is tightly embedded into my class consciousness as well, so I often feel more 'at home' in a classed space that is more lower middle class than the economic space I grew up in (a middle middle class, if that makes sense. A class born of lots and lots of work paired with white privilege, not a class born of college degrees and wearing pricey clothes). So even as I look at pictures from my elementary school days and 'see' a girl who isn't 'that' fat, the mind's eye has always seen 'that FAT'.
So, I was curious about the program, mostly because there was a boy in the group I was attracted to. He was new to the school, and had just moved a few months before. He also was in the grade behind mine, and I knew very little about him (other than his name) because we hardly saw each other on campus. I thought this might be a great way to get to know him, and perhaps, well, do whatever teens that age do when they 'like' each other. It wasn't as if I came from a home where one never dieted, or talked about weight loss.
By this time I was also well schooled in why I needed to not be fat. I watched my parents diet time and again, and not hold onto long term success, and I was leery of the practices in part because of the evidence of failure that I had grown up with. I also was mindful of all the various discussions and plans used to try and get me to lose weight, and most of those shamed me very deeply, particularly when these words included language about my inevitable failure at being able to find love and coupledom in a fat body.
Besides the presence of a cute boy in the group, part of me wanted to give it a go, see if this diet thing might work for me like it did for the NIH poster child. He was not someone I knew well, even though we lived close to each other. We had attended different elementary schools, for one thing. I remember one day walking home from school with a different boy who lived in our neighborhood, but closer to the weight-loss boy, before this boy had lost his weight. This particular day, the pre weight-loss boy was in front of us, by a fair distance, so we could talk about him without being heard. I don't remember us talking about him, until the classmate told me that the boy only had one pair of pants, and the boy's mom would not buy him another pair until he lost weight. I don't remember what I said, but inside, I was shocked, saddened, and glad I had different parents. How mean and shaming that was, and I hurt for him.
I don't remember him having a lot of friends, and I do believe he was picked on a lot. The few times I witnessed it in the school hallways, I did nothing, except internally thank god I wasn't the one getting picked on. I to this day am shocked and grateful that my days of being singled out as 'the one' and picked on ended once I left 1st grade. So, when he showed up in this meeting, thin and wearing snazzy new clothes (including great suspenders), looking like the best dressed person in the school, I'm not gonna lie, I wanted some of that, too.
So, I allowed my parents to sign me up for the group. I remember very little from the group (mostly because it started so late in the school year that we didn't have a whole lot of meetings to go to). We were weighed, of course, but I can't remember if it was done in front of everyone, or in private. I remember having to go home and have my mom measure me with a tape measure, to track inches lost. I remember sticking with an 'eating plan' for not a whole long time, and I remember losing 20 pounds in total. So, down to 200, and I don't remember how long it took me to re-gain that weight, but considering I was heavier when I graduated, it must not have taken long.
I have no idea of how the other students did with the weight loss program. The weight-loss poster boy went to a different high school, so I never saw him again, and I don't know what happened to the cute boy I was crushing on, as he never made it to the same high school a year after I matriculated to high school. In my late 20's, I heard a bit of news about the boy whose weight-loss success with the NIH program had instigated our public junior high school weight-loss program. His cousin worked with me, and remarked one day that his cousin was planning on having weight loss surgery. I don't know how much he weighed then, when he moved from thin back to fat, or anything else. I did hope, at least, that he got to enjoy thin privilege throughout high school, and that he no longer had to deal with cruel classmates and parents who wouldn't buy him adequate clothing.
As for me, I now weigh over 300 pounds, and have done so for most of my adult life. My health is pretty good to me, although I do take a very cheap pill every day for high blood pressure (that, untreated, isn't greatly above 'normal' blood pressure). I don't have 'metabolic disorder' or whatever medicine is using to describe the matrix of conditions that are attributed to 'obesity.' I have no idea how to classify my health using popular metrics, but I feel good in the body I have. I don't know if my experiences with public health interventions into 'childhood obesity' have any bearing on today's world, but I still wish that these programs were more likely to listen to those of us who were fat children and teens, before they design public campaigns. While I am against institutionalized weight-loss programs, I am all for learning about nutrition and exercise, and the positive role they play in one's health, and I've no problem with anyone losing weight as a result of practicing behaviors that increase physical and mental health, as long as the focus is on the behaviors and their benefits independent of weight loss.