Kevin Drum at Mother Jones is so very concerned, because “our kids are fat” but “they don’t know it.” Not that Kevin read a study, exactly, but he did read Fat kids don’t know they’re fat anymore, a post at Washington Post’s Wonkblog written by the also-so-very-concerned Roberto Ferdland. Hey, and FoxNews is totally on this:
It’s hard to be sure, because these people’s citations are crappy, but I think the study they’re all referring to is More Overweight Adolescents Think They Are Just Fine, in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
1) First, to set some context, let’s look at some photos of a few real people and their BMIs.1
The standard for what counts as “overweight” and “obese” varies by age; the older you are, the higher your BMI can be before you’re classified as overweight or obese. The study people are reporting on looked at kids ages 12-16. The three women whose photos I found don’t appear to be ages 12-16 – they’re college-aged, I’d guess – but the photos above still give useful context for what these BMI definitions of “overweight” and “obese” mean in real life, context that’s entirely lacking in the stories I linked to.2
So please keep this in mind: A twelve year old with a BMI of 22.7, like Stacey, would be “overweight” according to the standards used by this study. And if she didn’t think of herself as overweight, according to this study, that would be a problem. Similarly, a sixteen year old with a BMI of 25.7, like Shauna, would be “overweight,” and if she thinks her weight is normal, this study wants her put on a diet. And a sixteen year old with a BMI of 30, like Sharon, would be “obese,” and again, this study does not want her thinking of her body as acceptable.3
2) When FoxNews and The Washington Post do stories like this, they want readers (or viewers) to imagine genuinely, unambiguously fat teens going “I’m not fat! What are you talking about?” Because that is a very compelling story, albeit not a true story. As well as being notable because How amazing! How could they not know they’re fat?!?, it gives the comforting feeling of prejudices confirmed. It’s common to think of both kids and fat people as being unintelligent, and this story relies on that prejudice to seem plausible.
Here’s the photo that Kevin chose to illustrate his post, for example. For those of you who don’t want to click through, it shows a line-up of well-above-average-size fat children. The photo was originally a stock image that showed all the kids from head to toe, but in Kevin’s article the photo was cropped to make it into a dehumanizing headless fatties photo. (I’m not assuming that Kevin himself did the cropping or photo selection.)
It’s not remotely plausible that the kids in that photo – or anyone that fat – is unaware that they’re fat. They’d have to be in comas not to know, because our society has been slamming them with this knowledge (and telling them IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!) for their whole lives. But those kids are, apparently, who Kevin imagines when he reads this study; he worries that there are loads of genuinely fat people, like me, who somehow have never realized we’re fat.
Trust me, Kevin. We know. You can stop worrying. What this study shows is that lots of kids, most of whom aren’t fat, think their bodies are normal. Which they are.
3) The “overweight” and “obesity” levels for kids are, by the way, completely useless and arbitrary.4
The definitions are based on comparisons to government data from the 1960s through the 1990s. So when a reporter writes that 30% of kids are overweight, all that means is that 30% of kids would would have been in the 85th percentile of BMI for kids several decades ago. There’s no scientific reason to believe kids in 1965 were the “correct” weight, or that 85% is a meaningful cutoff point; these are simply the divisions chosen because they wanted something they could attach a number to.
Making things even more arbitrary, in 2010 they changed the labels so that kids that were “in danger of overweight” in 2009 are now “overweight,” and the kids formerly called “overweight” are now “obese.”
4) There are a ton of unstated but dubious assumptions underlying all this concern – the belief that being fat is the same as being unhealthy, the idea that fat children become fat adults, the idea that kids being less accepting of their bodies makes them healthier – that I don’t feel I have time to address in this post. But for a start, I’d recommend reading this well-cited article by Jon Robison (pdf link). Here’s a sample:
When it comes to fat children and adult morbidity, the relationship appears to be… tenuous. In the study of a thousand British families the authors concluded that there was “no excess adult health risk from childhood or teenage overweight.”
Furthermore, in the review of 17 studies that examined the tracking of obesity from childhood to adulthood mentioned above, children whose fatness persisted into adulthood had no more disease risk than adults who had never been fat. In fact, fat adult women who were also fat as children actually had lower triglycerides and total cholesterol.
Though it is often taken for granted that fat children means unhealthy children, the extensive review of screening and interventions for childhood overweight in the journal Pediatrics in 2005 “did not locate adequate longitudinal data relating childhood weight status to childhood health outcomes.”
The much heralded national “epidemic” of childhood diabetes has also failed to materialize. Although type II diabetes may be increasing in certain ethnic groups, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the disease is “still rare in childhood” with the incidence remaining much lower than other childhood afflictions that seem to garner significantly less media coverage.
5) This study is good news, even though the study authors don’t seem to realize that. If this study’s findings are accurate, then a lot more kids are accepting their bodies as “normal” today. That’s wonderful news, both for fat kids and for non-fat kids. Let’s keep up the good work.
- These photos came from Kate Harding’s wonderful “Illustrated BMI Categories” photoset. The women chose to share their photos with their BMI information publicly. [↩]
- I’m sorry I haven’t created a similar image of BMIs illustrated with photos of young men, because the official BMI standards for boys are every bit as ridiculous, and every bit as harmful. But writing this post has already taken me forever, and I’m not even half done with it, and for whatever reason far fewer boys have put their photos online with their BMIs that I can find, so I apologize to myself and all the other fat boys out there. [↩]
- For a girl age 12, a BMI of 21.8 or above is “overweight,” and a BMI of 25.2 or above is “obese.” For a girl age 16, 24.6 BMI or above is “overweight,” and 28.8 BMI or above is “obese.” Here’s the source for these BMIs (pdf). The official BMIs for “overweight” and “obese” for boys are similar. [↩]
- Here, have a bunch of links about appalled parents finding out that the government classifies their rather thin kids as fat: 1 2 3 4 5 6. Seriously, click through. Look at the photos. [↩]