Fit Girls: Weight = Moral Failure?

earlypubertychildhoodobesity

Let’s talk about the feeling of failure parents feel when they realize their kids weigh too much – or too little. You’re in the doctor’s office and she announces your child is overweight, in the red zone and a feeling of failure quickly follows. I’ve heard exactly the same feelings from parents who are told their child is underweight, malnourished, etc.

Yes, it is the parents’ responsibility. Sometimes it is a moral failure on the part of parents. A form of neglect. Sometimes.

Most of the time it’s not.

It’s a side effect of prosperity.

In America we’ve had some good times. Food and access to it, is more abundant than it’s ever been and we have to do far less work to get it.

We’re not simply fatter people. We’re larger boned and taller than the average person in developing nation. We’re larger boned and taller than Americans one or two generations ago – we also weigh more. Our nutrition – through access to food, plus our education and knowledge about food – is better now than ever in the history of civilization.

I spoke to Dr. Teresa Knight, Ob/Gyn, who is deeply concerned about what early puberty and childhood obesity means for this generation of girls. One of the things I had trouble wrapping my brain around was why girls would begin puberty earlier when, in fact, women are having children later rather than sooner and the need for more children to work fields is no longer a driving force for women to have children early and often. Why aren’t girls going through puberty later instead of earlier?

“What if we were wild animals and we take away our thought process,” Dr. Knight asked, meaning the thought process of the late 20th Century, that women should wait longer to have children and work it around their careers. “All wild animals if you give them more food and make them healthy then they reproduce more. The goal of all of nature is to reproduce more, bloom more, same thing. In nature, females are either pregnant or breast feeding their whole lives because that’s what they do.”

Put like that it does make sense that prosperity would equate to early puberty and larger bodies in mammals, and humans are still fundamentally mammals.

To get some perspective on how differently we eat today, as a result of prosperity, talk to your grandparents and parents about how they ate as children. This is a very enlightening exercise.

My grandparents grew up in the depression. Meat was a very rare luxury. They grew their own food in their own giant garden. When the crops came in they spent months laboring to store the fruits and vegetables for the winter and lean times. The meat, eggs and milk they had – they grew themselves. As they became more prosperous they sent the cow to be slaughtered and the meat was cut and stored at a butcher. The meat from that cow would last them the year. Maybe there was a pig and surely there were family chickens. My grandmother, now 85, stopped growing her own vegetables only last year. I was sorely disappointed.

Growing up, my mother remembers the men who went out to work were the only ones who ate the precious little meat they could afford. My grandfather went to work at a factory and provided a stable living, but they still ate mostly from their garden. As they became more prosperous they slowly started buying their meat from the grocery store instead of raising it themselves. Still, there was not meat at every meal. Sunday roast was a big deal. My grandmother often made dessert for after dinner, but processed sugar and sweets were a very rare treat.† My mother was a mere 100 pounds when she graduated from high school.

When I grew up my parents gardened a little, but most of our food came from the grocery store. More of our entertainment began being food-oriented. The generation before them used food for entertainment, but only after the women toiled in the kitchen for hours, days even, to make it for their social occasion. My family had pizza on a Friday night. We went out to dinner for special occasions like birthdays and graduations – but it was so infrequent that it was special. We very rarely went to McDonalds or Burger King, except when traveling when we’d stop for the 50 cent hamburgers. No fries. No soft drink. The far majority of our food was still prepared at home, now with more packaged and processed food, like fish sticks, to quicken the process. I was around 115 pounds when I graduated from high school.

Our family doesn’t eat out much either. I say that, but it’s in comparison to how often other people of the 21st Century eat out rather than a comparison to how often my parents or grandparents ate out. I don’t actually consider stopping at the McDonalds for a $1 chicken sandwich because we are too busy to stop between appointments “eating out” because it lacks nuance. My children have never known, and God willing, will never know, the feeling of true hunger. They eat for fun. It’s their hobby. They still eat tons of fruits and vegetables, but I’m not sure standing in line at the grocery store compares to weeding a garden for 5 months. We can’t afford organic so their fruits and vegetables aren’t as healthy as they once were. At least once a day they have meat, sometimes it’s twice. (My kids are fine with vegetables only for dinner – it’s my red-blooded American husband who will get up and make some chicken if I don’t plan a meal around it.) The animals we eat are caged and therefore get no exercise so the meat we eat is fattier, less nutritious and full of hormones and antibiotics. Eating for us, as we raise this generation is more “conscious choice” and “resolve to do better” and less “burden of economic necessity.”

Put in perspective – the weight issue our family has – is not so much moral failure as a side effect of prosperity.

Fit Family = Fit Girl

Fit Girl Series – Obese Teens on Oprah

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12 comments ↓

#1 Alexis Saint on 01.26.09 at 11:27 am

Great post, Tracee. Being smart women we can use the information we have to make the best choices for our future health. We all know that there is a link between increased exposure to estrogen and breast cancer. I see the issue with increased weight earlier in a girls life leading to earlier puberty being a huge alarm bell for this increased cancer risk. Especially when we factor in other variables of prosperity such as, delayed childbearing, fewer pregnancies, and shorter amounts of time spent breast feeding. We would be smart to put our prosperity to full advantage and choose the healthiest food we can afford. I know I can’t spend my grocery budget on everything organic, but I try to thoughtfully plan my family menus. Knowing that I have some control over my health makes the $1 value meal fake food seem not so tempting. My mini van always rolls with a little stash of healthy yummy somethings for just such temptations.

#2 Tracee on 01.26.09 at 12:36 pm

Good Point Alexis. We have to be more conscientious about it. Keeping apples, granola bars, almonds, even sugarless gum is a good tip to help stave off the “emergency” drive through stop.

And as much as we might hate to see it – not breastfeeding does increase breast cancer risk, as does delaying childbearing. These risk factors play a bigger role than heredity and genetics even. See here: http://thegirlrevolution.com/empowering-girls-breast-cancer-risks/

#3 Tracee on 01.26.09 at 4:07 pm

From Ashley via email:

Those are some great points. I believe it’s also a result of the lack of physical activity our children get. I mean, I try so hard to turn off the tv.. we have no video games in our house..but still, I see my children’s daily life and it’s drastically different from when I was a little girl. I played outside more often, took dance twice a week, rode my bike A LOT. And was just so active. For one thing we didn’t have a chanel that played cartoons 24 hours a day when I was their age..after morning cartoons that was it and we didn’t have VCR until much later, so I pretty much had to find something to do, something to play, something to practice. It’s just so different now. Sometimes I envy these people that completely get away from modern society and take their little family units to remote places, or just start over in the country somewhere. I’d bet they’re healthier – physically and spiritually – definately closer as a family, you know?

#4 Jen on 01.27.09 at 8:30 am

I am definitely encouraging more meatless meals around our house to spite carnivorous husband :) My kids mostly drink water. Never, ever do they drink sodas. My mom only drank water. I only drank water. My kids only drink water. We crave it. I’m SO thankful I didn’t hop on the juice bandwagon. We are eating out far less. I just can’t bring myself to spend 30.00 on a .50 worth of pasta, or bread, or sugar, etc…

Jenís last blog post..Special

#5 Jen on 01.27.09 at 8:34 am

Have you read “Last Child in the Woods, Protecting our Kids from Nature Deficit Disorder?” It touches on a lot of points you have made about how our kids don’t play outside anymore. Also, not playing outside=not enough sunshine= not enough vit. D, which= major increased cancer risks.

Jenís last blog post..Special

#6 Athena on 01.27.09 at 8:37 am

I’ve been thinking about your post since I read it yesterday, and the other post you linked to.

The thing is, life is very complex. Rarely does anything have a single cause. So I don’t think it’s as simple as prosperity -> obesity ->early puberty so that we can reproduce more.

We do know for a fact that there are hormone disrupters in almost all our cosmetics, hair products, cleansers, etc. (as tested and described in the Cosmetic Database you linked to in the comments of the other post.)

We also know that chemicals in plastics and glues, etc. are causing havoc in our systems. Not to mention all the other forms of pollution.

So I posit that it is simply the sum result of our current lifestyles which are causing girls bodies to mature faster.


My last thoughts in regard to this specific post are:

- how you said we’re experiencing longer lifespans and thus can reproduce more: this current generation of kids are actually the FIRST generation expected to have a SHORTER lifespan than that of their parents, largely due in part to obesity and early onset of diabetes. Really sad, it is being covered on Oprah again this week actually.

- Obesity is not as prevalent in many other first world countries, which are also prospering (as much as any country could prosper this year. .. ) I think this is largely an American epidemic. Even in Canada I don’t see nearly as many overweight people, and amongst my American friends there is an entirely different standard of what being fit is. I am a Canadian that lived in America, and currently live in a touristy neighborhood that gets a lot of American visitors. We can always tell who the Americans are by their size :(

#7 Tracee on 01.27.09 at 8:50 am

Nope, you’re absolutely right, Athena. It’s not that simple at all. But, it’s a blog and people expect it to be short.

That’s why it’s a Fit Girl Series. Keep tuning in because we are going to talk about hormone disruptors and chemicals that some doctors do believe is having an impact on our bodies.

We might expect for kids to have shorter lifespans (IF we don’t change course), but we definately have easier access to food. We don’t grow our own food. Growing your food is work. Work is exercise. Work for food is a different lifestyle.

Absolutely it’s lifestyles.

Obesity is an American attribute. But, early puberty is worldwide. From the research I’ve done, we’re seeing it in all developing nations to varying degrees. Even if the girls aren’t considered clinically “obese” they are still able to maintain a larger body weight than previous generations because of easier access to food.

They could always tell I was an American in Lithuania and Eastern Europe. They said it was my perpetual smile. :)

#8 Athena on 01.27.09 at 8:53 am

I look forward to reading more. I really, really enjoy your blog.

#9 Fit Girl Series - Obese Teens on Oprah — The Girl Revolution on 01.27.09 at 9:18 am

[...] ← Fit Girls: Weight = Moral Failure? [...]

#10 Tracee on 01.27.09 at 9:50 am

Thank you Athena. I enjoy your input.

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