Friday, September 12, 2014

Could Being Called Chubby as a Child Lead to an Eating Disorder?

When President Obama used the word "chubby" to refer to his older daughter Malia six years ago, he may as well have offered her one of his cigarettes. Just as smoking cigarettes can lead to lung cancer, heart disease and other life threatening diseases, being called "chubby" as a child can put a child at greater risk for developing life threatening eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.
Despite the "chubby" label, we could not find
even one remotely chubby picture of Malia Obama
(shown above with sister Sasha and below with her parents)

In an interview with Parents magazine, Barack Obama naively told a reporter, "A couple of years ago -- you'd never know it by looking at her now -- Malia was getting a little chubby." No doubt Obama thought he was giving Malia a compliment, but the first daughter received the subtle message that, to her dad, size mattered.

Later First Lady Michelle Obama was roundly criticized when she launched her anti-childhood obesity campaign, Let's Move, with a seemingly harmless anecdote on The Today Show concerning her daughters' visit to their pediatrician. Obama said the doctor advised her to keep close tabs on Malia and Sasha's BMI (body mass index), especially in light of the growing obesity trend in the African American community.

"We went to our pediatrician all the time," the FLOTUS told Today Show host Matt Lauer. "I thought my kids were perfect... but the doctor warned that he was concerned that something was getting off balance."

Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist and author who specializes in mindful eating, wrote in HuffPo, "Michelle may not have considered or been familiar with the delicate balance between preventing obesity and triggering eating disorders. She mentioned that she put her children on a diet after her pediatrician and their father felt they were getting 'chubby.'

Words like 'chubby' don't cause eating disorders but they are often a trigger to disordered eating behavior."

Once upon a time it was perfectly acceptable
to label children as chubby
Eating disorder experts tend to agree with Albers that while there may not be a proven cause-and-effect relationship between being called "chubby" and developing an eating disorder, there is likely a correlation. Being teased about one's weight or called "chubby" can be a large factor in becoming pathologically obsessed with one's body size.

Celebrities from Princess Diana to singer Karen Carpenter are among the well-known victims of being called "chubby" and later suffering from eating disorders. In a secretly recorded audiotape Princess Diana made concerning her dissatisfaction with her royal marriage to Prince Charles, the model-thin princess cited Prince Charles calling her "chubby" as one of the impetuses that led to her developing anorexia.

Though Princess Diana did not die as a result of her self-acknowledged eating disorder, the death of talented songbird Karen Carpenter from cardiac arrest was linked to the strain that years of battling anorexia had placed on her heart.
Karen Carpenter went overboard to combat her chubby label

Although Michelle Obama undoubtedly means well in her anti-obesity quest and is trying to couch her Let's Move campaign in terms of good health vs. good looks, some critics such as Rachel Richardson, a blogger who has personally recovered from an eating disorder, observe a worrisome subtext in the First Lady's concern with childhood obesity.

"I'm sure that Michelle Obama equates fat with unhealthy, especially since the family doctor seems hypervigilant on these kinds of issues, so it's possible that the First Lady's concern was for the health of her child and family," wrote Richardson on her blog, The-F-Word: Food, Fat and Feminism. "Nonetheless it strikes me as odd that these so-called health concerns and nutrition advice did not arise until OMG, MALIA IS GETTING FAT!! If you eat a steady diet of fast-, junk- and processed foods and yet are genetically blessed to remain thin, does this mean you're healthy?"

Child psychologists recommend focusing on behaviors
vs. labels like "chubby" or "fat"
Most reasonable people would agree that all children should lean toward healthier food choices and increased physical activity. Even those who oppose our society's obsession with being skinny would acknowledge that obese children are at greater risk for developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

Rather than focusing on children's weight or "chubbiness," however, eating disorder experts advise parents and teachers to encourage all children to practice healthy behaviors, such as eating apples or riding bicycles. The Academy for Eating Disorders, for instance, recommends that "interventions... be weight-neutral" and not related to a child's size. In its official guidelines published on the group's website, the Academy for Eating Disorders cautions, "Weight is not a behavior and therefore not an appropriate target for behavior modification. Children across the weight spectrum benefit from limiting time spent watching television and eating a healthy diet."

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