Killing with Kindness: America’s Big Fat Problem

A recent study found that many doctors are reluctant to label fat kids as obese, preferring instead to use less-serious euphemisms such as “at risk for overweight” or “overweight.” The reason? Doctors’ concerns over self-esteem: Calling fat kids obese may hurt their feelings.

This trend has helped fuel an obesity epidemic among children, about one in three of whom is overweight and one in five of whom is clinically obese. One result: The incidence of juvenile diabetes has skyrocketed over the past ten years.

The study recommended that pediatricians and other doctors be more honest and direct about the child’s weight and its consequences. No one should be criticized for being overweight, but ignoring (or accepting) obesity out of courtesy is both misguided and dangerous.

Everyone agrees that boys and girls should feel good about themselves. Feminists, media literacy groups, and body-image activists have long encouraged girls to reject the body shape of thin women they see in the media and accept their own curves. (Despite popular belief, there’s little evidence that girls view either Barbie dolls or fashion models as physical role models.)

While eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are often highlighted in the news media (usually in relation to the latest controversy over thin models), they are actually very rare. About one percent of women have anorexia, and a majority of the remaining 99 percent are overweight.

Contrary to the popular belief that nearly all women are constantly dieting, polls and surveys find that only a minority of Americans diet. In February, Harvard researchers released a study showing that the most common eating disorder is binge eating, and most Americans are eating too much instead of too little. Those extra pounds and curves that we are being told to accept are causing serious health problems for millions of people.

In an interview published in the June issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, actress Jamie Lee Curtis commented on a famous and celebrated photo shoot showing her “real” body in all its unretouched imperfection. Curtis said, “I think what people took from those photos was: ‘Love yourself no matter what.’ And the problem with that is: What if what you’re doing is unhealthy?... If you’re 50 pounds overweight and you have diabetes in your family, was I telling you that’s okay? No. A lot of people misunderstood me—that being overweight was okay because that’s who you are.”

Curtis highlights a basic but often overlooked flaw in the “accept yourself” messages prevalent in the media. While the efforts to empower young women and protect their self-esteem are well-intentioned, many are actually doing more harm than good. In a country where two-thirds of Americans are overweight (more of them women than men), the “accept yourself” message has been misused as an excuse to remain unhealthy.

Of course no one should lose weight to please others or look like thin fashion models; they should instead lose weight so that they don’t die young from diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related diseases. Sugar-coating that message helps no one.

Benjamin Radford is author of "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us" (2003). This and other books are noted on his website.