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Childhood obesity: are parents really to blame?

Should a child’s obese body be used as evidence to support their removal from their parents' care? According to a recent report in The Age newspaper, the Children’s Court of Victoria thinks so. Victoria’s…

Rather than criticising parents of fat children, it’s more productive to confront the wider issues of neglect and social inequality. Flickr/Jake Folsom

Should a child’s obese body be used as evidence to support their removal from their parents' care? According to a recent report in The Age newspaper, the Children’s Court of Victoria thinks so.

Victoria’s Department of Human Services (DHS) has cited a young person’s obesity in at least two child protection cases this year. A spokesperson for the DHS told The Age obesity was not of itself grounds for child protection workers to become involved with a family. Nevertheless, the fact that obesity was used as evidence at all demonstrates that a child’s obese body is considered proof of abusive or neglectful parenting. But should it be?

Both Victorian children seem to have been placed into care, in part, because their mothers contributed to their obesity. The teenage girl was allowed to eat too much, while the boy’s medical intervention had failed because his mother let him sit “in his room, eating and inactive”. The courts and DHS assumed that if these children had different parents – or no parents at all – they would not be obese.

The central argument in these two cases is that the parents have neglected their child’s medical needs: the need to not be obese. Indeed, much of the debate around this issue (and childhood obesity in general) frames obesity as a medical problem that may be solved by medical intervention – including hormone treatment, medication and surgery – and of course, by making healthy lifestyle choices.

But there is a moral undercurrent to this issue of neglect. This stems from our societal understanding of what it means to be fat. The body is wrongly assumed to be an accurate indicator of a person’s moral worth – or lack of. Someone who is lean, even skinny, is perceived to be a “good person”: healthy, fit and active.

Conversely, a person who is fat is judged as having a lack of morals. They must be lazy, unhealthy, greedy, inactive, unfit, even stupid. In short, a fat person is deemed to be a bad person and a drain on the economy and society.

These two parents, as well as parents of fat children in general, are criticised and even demonised for failing to save their children from the sins of sloth, gluttony, and greed. They have been judged to be neglectful in their duty to protect their children from being fat. And when a parent is accused of causing or contributing to their child’s fatness, it’s insinuated that they’re also corrupting their child and creating a “bad person”.

These two Victorian children have been removed from their parent’s care to save them from neglectful parenting, ill-health, a fat body – and their soul. This is not to say that there were no medical reasons for placing these children into state care. But when we talk about obesity, our understandings of the fat body are imbued with both moral and medical assumptions. And it has become difficult to separate the two.

Within a modern understanding of health, the fat body is also seen as the failure of individuals to look after their own (or their own children’s) bodies. By judging fat people as irresponsible - neglecting to make healthy “choices” - fat people are unfairly blamed for being fat. In these cases though, the parents have been blamed for allowing their children to be fat.

Who’s to blame?

There will be commentators who continue to argue that people just need to take more responsibility for their own health and actions by making the right choices. But this isn’t always easy. And blaming a mother for making her child fat does not begin to acknowledge the multiple, oppressive forces that restrict the choices a parent can make.

As Associate Professor John Dixon has rightly pointed out, parents and children who are obese are themselves victims. It is well established that economic, environmental, social, cultural, historical and political forces act as determinants on children’s health and bodies. These factors also affect the ability to parent well.

Children who live in poverty are highly represented in obesity statistics. Does this mean poor parents are the most neglectful and abusive parents? Or poor children are the laziest? There are obviously many other forces at play.

I don’t know all of the details of these particular cases, and thus cannot say whether these children and their parents needed to be separated. There were obviously other issues of neglect or abuse that alerted the authorities to begin with. However, it appears that these two Victorian children’s fatness was, to some degree, used as evidence of child abuse or neglect.

My concern is that it is not only courts and DHS who blame a child’s fatness on the parents. Teachers, journalists, politicians, doctors, academics and members of the public are sometimes quick to judge fat kids and their bad parents without considering other determinants on health or the assumptions that shape how we understand a fat body.

Perhaps instead of criticising parents of all fat children, or fat children themselves, it is more productive and positive to confront the wider issues of neglect. Yes, there are many families who need sustained support and help with their children’s health. However, just making fat kids thinner will do little to address the fat elephant in the room – the social injustices which continue to be perpetuated by social inequalities.

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    A very thought-provoking article!

    Dareen highlights the fact kids in poorer families are more likely to be obese, but suggests it's a lot more complex than 'blaming the parents'.

    One factor worth exploring is that poor families are more likely to experience intervention from authorities - including social workers and health professionals. Is there a possibility this undermines the authority of parents? Could it mean kids don't see their parents as role models, and don't follow their direction regarding a healthy diet?

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    1. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Observing from close quarters (Over the back fence) a child develop into a troubled teenager nominally living at his Grandmothers home of how he could play off 3 different regional welfare offices, plus his mother against his Grandmother so that he did not attend school properly and was essentially a free agent. Complex problem heightened by a bit of ADD - just how fast he could break his bikes and then seek help from me to fix. Last heard of, terrorizing people on the train and developing skills…

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  2. Rob Jones

    logged in via Facebook

    I really like your point about moral judgement of people based on their weight. Obese people aside, I think most people can live healthy, productive lives with a little weight on their bodies and people need to get off their case a little. One of the great things about humans is that we come in all shapes and sizes.

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  3. Peter Fox

    Medical doctor

    The fat apologists seem to be proliferating at the same rate as Australia's waist circumference.

    Obese people are victims alright. They are victims of an inactive, obesogenic environment. Only by judging overweight people and offering interventions can we address this epidemic. Obesity is likely to substantially increase in the future due to the 'social contagion' phenomenon - http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa066082 - where obesity is normalised, and overweight people 'infect' others…

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    1. Darren Powell

      Doctoral candidate in Health and Physical Education at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Peter Fox

      I'm not sure how judging fat people is helping them Peter. You seem to contradict yourself by saying the problem is that fat people are victims of an obesegenic environment (which is almost entirely out of their control), but then claim the way to fix this environment is by judging fat people and intervening individually? How does blaming the individual help create healthier outcomes for all? Or it is only fat people who are inactive or unhealthy?

      Although I do not have the records at hand, there…

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    2. Peter Fox

      Medical doctor

      In reply to Darren Powell

      Thanks Darren.

      For the sake of my discussion, I will use the terms fat/overweight/obese interchangeably since they are part of the same spectrum (and risk of same adverse health outcomes [1], albeit varying strength of association). We could discuss the pros and cons of BMI vs waist circumference vs anthropometric measurements, but that is a separate Conversation in its own right.

      Firstly, you imply that childhood obesity is not an 'epidemic' because there has been "little increase since 1995…

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  4. Craig Williamson

    logged in via Facebook

    @ Peter - Interestingly, I have a number of very overweight mates, and yet I'm not.
    Darren isn't making excuses for fat people, he's pointing out that it's often not their "fault" because they're lazy and slovenly - there can be other causes.
    Education is the key, as with most of the problems in the world today. If the parents and children are taught the values of nutrition, exercise and a healthy lifestyle, then the issue of the children's weight is less a concern.
    There are plenty of people…

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    1. Peter Fox

      Medical doctor

      In reply to Craig Williamson

      Thanks Craig. What is missing in your comment is an appreciation of relative risk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_risk)

      Having overweight mates increases your risk of being overweight - it doesn't necessarily mean you will be overweight.

      "There are plenty of people who are overweight, and yet have normal cholesterol levels...." Once again, if you are overweight you have an increased risk of adverse health outcomes. What you are referring to in both cases is anecdote.

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  5. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “However, it appears that these two Victorian children’s fatness was, to some degree, used as evidence of child abuse or neglect.”

    There were two cases. One was a pre-teenage boy (possibly 12 years of age or less) who weighed 110 kilograms, (or nearly 17 UK stone), which is almost 3 times the average weight of a 12 year old.

    The other was a girl whose waist measurement (169 cm) was greater than her height.

    These were severely obese children. The children were being given far too much food. It is similar neglect if they were being purposely starved by being given far too little food.

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      (This time) I have to agree with Dale - these examples of extreme obesity in young children are exceptional, and call for exceptional measures.

      I don't think we can extrapolate too far from these specific cases.

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    2. Darren Powell

      Doctoral candidate in Health and Physical Education at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Hi Dale and Sue - thanks for your comments:

      I agree that these two cases were exceptional. I am not claiming that children with ill-health or neglectful parents should not be given options that benefit them and their families.

      However the idea that these parents were overfeeding their children (like being purpsosively starved) is based on common assumptions about the cause of fatness. There was was no mention of overfeeding in the articles. By blaming the parents for overfeeding or blaming…

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    3. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Darren Powell

      "the difficulties many families have in accessing high quality, low-energy, nutrient rich food"

      That's often said, but what is the difficulty? Time, to buy and prepare fresh food, if both parents are working? Skills in cooking? And perhaps the ability of say NO to what children want? After all, how many millions are spent on getting food chemists to produce (junky) food that tastes fantastic? Can a parent in the home kitchen compete with that stuff on taste grounds?

      We have responsible authorities trying to send out reasonable messages on the one hand, and a huge industry spending billions on persuading us to behave quite differently. We can see who is winning at this game.

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    4. Darren Powell

      Doctoral candidate in Health and Physical Education at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Thanks Russell.
      I totally agree with your assertion regarding the food and beverage industry. My research at them moment is focused on how Big Food is getting round (self-regulated) marketing to guidelines to get into schools - using the war on obesity as a bit of a Trojan horse. Marketing is a huge driver in how we think and act about food.
      However, the cost of fresh, unprocessed, whole foods is a major determinant of people's access to healthy eating. It's not just a matter of kids getting what…

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    5. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Darren Powell

      Hi Darren,

      Poverty is part of the problem, but only part - if you go to a big supermarket you're bound to see: trolleys piled high with soft drinks, crisps, biscuits, ice-creams etc, and plenty of fat people shovelling 'slabs' of beer into the boot of the their cars.

      Those people aren't poor. A couple of factors involved are the stupid belief that cheaper is better, and the even more disastrous belief that we should get as much instant gratification as we can - "because you deserve it', as the ad used to say.

      All those billions spent on advertising junk food aren't spent on people who can't afford to buy it.

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  6. Jennifer Lee

    Lecturer in Creative Writing, Gender Studies and Literary Studies at Victoria University

    We all need to question the assumptions made about fat - especially when it relates to fat children. In this article, Darren does what an academic should do - questions prevailing assumptions. I hope to read more about Darren's research in the Conversation (according to his profile, he is 'researching how children and adults within school communities understand, experience and perceive 'anti-obesity programmes' in primary schools'). So far, the childhood obesity epidemic messages and programs are one big experiment, and I would like to hear about the real effects of this on children, and parents.

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  7. Dave Smith

    Energy Consultant

    Darren says:

    'Nevertheless, the fact that obesity was used as evidence at all demonstrates that a child’s obese body is considered proof of abusive or neglectful parenting."

    That statement is nonsense. It does not demonstrate anything of the kind. In any judgement, there are generally many pieces of evidence to consider (I assume that this was the case here, since Darren does not assert otherwise). It is rare that a single piece of evidence provides proof.

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    1. Darren Powell

      Doctoral candidate in Health and Physical Education at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Dave Smith

      Sorry Dave, I disagree. I assert a number of times that the child's obese body was not the only reason they were separated. Furthermore, proof does not necessarily mean a single, definitive truth that is the result of one or more pieces of evidence. Proof is the evidence or an argument that helps to establish a fact or the truth. In these two cases, a child's fat body was held up to HELP establish the fact they had been abused or neglected - the fat body provided proof.

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    2. Dave Smith

      Energy Consultant

      In reply to Darren Powell

      "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'"

      What you call "proof", the rest of the world calls "evidence".

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    3. Darren Powell

      Doctoral candidate in Health and Physical Education at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Dave Smith

      Proof
      noun
      1.evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.
      2.anything serving as such evidence: What proof do you have that they were neglected?
      3.the act of testing or making trial of anything; test; trial: to put a thing to the proof.
      4.the establishment of the truth of anything; demonstration.
      5.evidence having probative weight.

      I'll leave it at that.

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