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Childhood obesity: are parents really to blame?

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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