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The other F-word: Talking to kids about obesity

By Wendy Sachs Special to CNN | 7/31/2013, 9:46 a.m.

(CNN) -- We don't use the F-word in my family. And by F, I'm not talking about the F-bombs, because those get dropped from time to time. I'm talking about the word "fat." The word is banned from my house with the same vigilance that racist language would not be tolerated. Extreme, perhaps, but I have a husband who went through a chubby stage and still bears the scars of his prepubescent ridicule. I also have two tween children with very different body types and low thresholds for teasing. Mention weight or body shape among my family and the reaction can be nuclear, unleashing a tsunami of tears, screams and "I hate you!"

Extreme body awareness and the barf-starve-smoke-yourself-to-thinness regimen is hardly new for teenagers and young women. But the age at which the obsession is starting seems to be creeping even younger. Today, according to the Duke Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University, more than 40% of all 9- and 10-year-old girls have already been on a diet.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 40-60% of children between ages 6 and 12 are worried about their weight and 70% want to slim down.

Maybe this isn't so surprising given the aggressively narrow proportions in girls' clothing these days in trendy skinny jeans, Lycra leggings and unforgiving clingy tops that are all the rage among the under-12 set. It's no wonder that young girls are more aware than ever of their own mini-muffin tops or "baby fat" as grandmas call it. Compound clothes with the omnipresent camera phone, photo stream and "selfies," and it's a recipe ripe for self-loathing.

We know that there is a very real childhood obesity epidemic in this country plaguing entire communities and it is one of the most significant health issues of our time. Our snack food nation is chock full of overstuffed soda-coma kids who play outside less and eat more. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, more than one-third of children and teenagers in the United States were overweight or obese. The number is alarming. It's a national crisis that everyone from first lady Michelle Obama on down seems intent on tackling.

In fact, my daughter's elementary school participated in an amped-up fitness program this year. The program included cardio and flexibility tests, weighing the children and taking a body mass index. The results were printed with color-coded columns that red-flagged danger zones for kids at risk in various categories.

I happened to walk into the school on a morning when some fourth-grade girls were being herded into a corner next to a scale and weighed by the physical education teacher, who then typed the children's weight into a laptop. As the girls waited to be weighed, some looked like they were about to burst into tears and others like they were going to throw up. One of the tiniest girls in the grade stood next to one of the largest, in a painfully awkward scene that seemed stolen from a Judy Blume novel.