Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Flood Of Debate Over First Lady's Child Obesity Campaign, From Worries About Eating Disorders To Civil Rights Issues

Mrs. Obama just might guide us out of the darkest decades in the nation's food and health history. Is it making America nervous?
First Lady Michelle Obama will officially launch her child obesity campaign three days from now, but it's already stirring up plenty of concern. During the past week, Mrs. Obama has been both criticized and lauded for discussing her daughters' health status in public, and she's even being accused of putting the nation "at risk" for a pandemic of eating disorders. It's a double-sided meme that's gotten loads of attention as it's built around the Internet, and one that's based on both misreporting of Mrs. Obama's comments, and a lack of understanding about her upcoming campaign.

During a pre-launch event for the campaign, held at a YMCA last week, Mrs. Obama told the story of getting a heads-up from the family pediatrician that she might want to make some changes in her family's eating habits for health reasons, based on her daughters' annual physical.

"...We were fortunate enough to have a pediatrician...that kind of waved the red flag for me, as a mother, and basically cautioned me that I had to take a look at my own children's BMI," Mrs. Obama said, during her remarks.

BMI is body mass index, and calculated from weight and height, and used as a measure of body fatness.

"I thought my kids were perfect," Mrs. Obama continued. "They are and always will be, but he [the doctor] warned that he was concerned that something was getting off balance."

e First Lady didn't say which daughter had gained weight, or how much. She also never said that either of her girls was fat. But there are now blogposts and international media outlets covering the story of privacy violations and looming eating disorders--including those that might, in future, be suffered by Malia and Sasha. There are chat threads and discussion boards worrying about the idea. On the website Shine, a post titled Is it Okay To Talk About Your Daughter's Weight If It's For The National Good? got more than 5,300 comments--an indication of what a hot-button topic this has become. Psychology Today went straight for the headline-grabbing Could Michelle Obama Trigger a New Wave of Eating Disorders? Yesterday, ABC news weighed in with Did Michelle Obama Send The Wrong Message With Obesity Comments? and also raised the idea that Mrs. Obama's campaign will lead to eating disorders. (Above: Mrs. Obama was the center story on Drudge Report today, with a headline that reads 'My Fat Daughters,' and a link to the ABC story)

Mrs. Obama has told the same personal, heads-up-from-the-doctor story many times before, in public remarks and in interviews for print media. But until she announced
that she hopes that combating child obesity will be the legacy she leaves behind when her years in the White House are over, there wasn't much fuss about it.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has also weighed in on the debate, accusing Mrs. Obama of not only potentially inspiring eating disorders, but also of gearing up to violate the civil rights of Americans. NAAFA is worried that fat children and adults will be discriminated against even more than they already are, because Mrs. Obama is trying to create a world in which it is no longer acceptable to be fat.
NAAFA felt it necessary to publish an open letter to Mrs. Obama, calling on her to change her campaign--without really knowing what her campaign entails. The letter suggests Mrs. Obama adopt some policies that are already included in her campaign. Plenty of other groups that have concerns about dieting and size issues are also loading the blogosphere with commentary, too.

But much of the grave concerns being aired around the internet don't take into account the real details of Mrs. Obama's campaign.
In the ABC news story linked above, eating disorder activist Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh calls for Mrs. Obama's campaign to focus on behavioral changes, rather than weight loss. Mrs. Obama has been talking about healthy behavior changes for months--the need for more physical activity, and for things as simple as drinking water instead of sugary beverages, or eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. She's called for changes in the amount of time kids are allotted for physical activity at school and at home, and noted that reducing passive screen time in front of computers and video games is important. Mrs. Obama even discussed the value of behavior changes in the same speech that's caused the outcry in the mediasphere.

More than weight loss and calculating BMI
The parts of Mrs. Obama's campaign that have already been announced make it clear that it is about far more than just shedding pounds, or numbers on a scale. America has already been advised that there'll be a push to make healthy foods more affordable and accessible; to arm parents with information tools about food and nutrition in order to make better decisions; a push to turn schools and communities into environments that promote physical activity and health. A major element will be a push to get better foods and improved nutrition standards for the National School Lunch program.
The campaign could well amount to a total transformation of American culture, from a complacently obesogenic society into one that makes it possible for individuals, communities, corporations--and yes, policy makers--to make the healthiest choices at every opportunity.

The First Lady's office has declined to comment on the pre-launch criticism, and rightly so. Why respond to criticism that's based on not knowing facts about Mrs. Obama's campaign, or ignoring them? But
beyond that, Mrs. Obama is telling a real family story about food and health. She's describing how the First Family journeyed into their own epiphany on the relationship between food and health--the kind of epiphany that millions of Americans also need to arrive at--or we wouldn't be in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Even better, the Obama epiphany occurred before the family arrived at the White House, when Mrs. Obama was just like plenty of other working parents in America: Time crunched, overstressed, juggling career and child rearing. It's a good story to share. Mrs. Obama has spent months encouraging parents and families to make the kind of small changes that have big results--and whenever she's spoken about it, she receives big lauds from her audience. Until now.

No First Lady has ever taken such a critical public health initiative and attempted to focus every resource possibly available--public, private, and non-profit, the power of individuals and communities working together--on an attempt to "change the health status of an entire generation," as Mrs. Obama said to Matt Lauer on the Today show. After just a little more than a year in the White House, Mrs. Obama has fostered nothing short of a paradigm shift in the national conversation about health, food and behavior. And she's been applauded by medical experts experts, child advocates, Cabinet Secretaries, members of Congress---and plenty of citizens--for her willingness to take on child obesity.

It's not hyperbole to suggest that Mrs. Obama is the lantern-carrier who just might guide us out of the darkest decades in America's food and health history. But as with any attempt to alter practices that have long been acceptable in our collective behavior, of course there will be much protest on the way to change. It could be a food fight of epic proportions...but it's a battle that has to be waged, and nothing can stop it. As Mrs. Obama herself has said, America's future depends on it.

The full scope of the campaign will be revealed on Tuesday, Feb. 9, when the initiative is formally launched.

Related: A video of Mrs. Obama making the remarks that have caused the debate across the media landscape is here; the full transcript of the First Lady's remarks is here. Watch a video of Mrs. Obama discussing her initiative on Today show with host Matt Lauer, here. Last Tuesday, the First Lady met with lawmakers and Cabinet Secretaries at the White House to discuss the campaign. A post about Mrs. Obama addressing the US Conference of Mayors is here. The President's 2011 budget includes funding that supports Mrs. Obama's campaign, for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which will increase access to healthy foods. During his State of the Union address, President Obama focused the national spotlight on Mrs. Obama's efforts. Read about Surgeon General Regina Benjamin's report on combating obesity here. A post about the Healthy Kids Fair at the White House, an event in which Mrs. Obama discussed child nutrition and the need for changes in school environments, is here.