Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Camp Empathy

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 2012, front page

For days I've skipped over Cameron Larkins' story by Joe Robertson from the September 9, 2012 edition of The Kansas City Star on my list of things to write about, focusing on easier topics.  But this sweet kid's story, like so many other fat kids' stories, cannot go ignored.  

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 2012, front page

This eleven year old boy from Independence, Missouri is being shipped off to fat camp because he's bullied for his size.  This bike-riding, president of his elementary school, straight A student.  Why is he the one who has to leave behind his mother for an entire semester?  Why does this eleven year old boy have to be separated from his dog for four months?  Because he's bullied?  That's insane.  The bullies should be the ones shipped off to Camp Empathy.

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 2012, page A16

So should Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson.  He needs to pull his head out of his ass and try seeing things from the perspective of fat kids before allowing his students to participate in such a potentially psychologically unhealthy program.  He needs to read the book Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon.  He needs to take the advice of medical doctors, such as Dr. Andrew Weil, who advocate people of all sizes eat more fresh foods, and perhaps make significant changes to the school district's lunch program.  He needs to pay attention to news stories that report the widely used chemical BPA is scientifically linked to childhood obesity and understand that sometimes it's a child's environment that is harmful and not his appetite.

Cameron's story infuriates me, no doubt because it hits home.  I was never sent off to fat camp, although I was threatened to be hospitalized against my will when I was an anorexic eleven year old.  Cameron's age.

My parents sent me to Weight Watchers when I was in third grade. Never mind that both of them are fat, as were their parents before them. I suppose they thought they were too addicted to their bad habits to make changes in their own lives, but if I could be educated and encouraged to diet, there might be hope for me. 

I dutifully went to the weekly weigh-ins. Easily fifteen to fifty years younger than everyone else in line, I self-consciously stood on the scale as the check-in person announced my weight to the group. If I had lost weight, I felt proud.  If I had gained weight, I felt defeated in front of grownups I barely knew.  I became uber-competitive, thinking “I bet if I'm good and work harder this next week I can lose the most weight in the whole group.”

Instead of hanging out with my family in the living room, eating popcorn, drinking Pepsi, and watching TV, I’d hide in my bedroom, drinking Tab, poring over my food diary, counting calories to see how I could lower the daily total.  If I met my goal of just 500 calories a day, I felt exhilarated.  Empowered. I’d run up and down our basement stairs for forty-five minutes without stopping. I’d ignore my friends playing Barbies so I could go on hours-long walks by myself.  I'd gone from being a friendly, sociable kid to being an awkward introvert. 

Mom took me to the doctor in fifth grade when I passed out at school. As I sat in the examining room, freezing cold under my thin smock, I stared at the floor as I listened to the doctor chide my mother for not bringing me in sooner.  I was 5'3" and weighed 79 pounds.  His diagnosis: anorexia nervosa. I was sent to a therapist. After a few rough patches—being threatened with hospitalization and force-fed by my rage-filled father—I began eating again. And eating and eating and eating. I quit running up and down the stairs and going for long, solitary walks because I knew my dad would yell at me and my mom would start crying. By seventh grade, yet another doctor I was taken to when I began experiencing severe menstrual pain, pointed to a chart and admonished me for being twenty pounds overweight.  My weight was no longer my mom's fault.  It was mine.

Fast forward twenty-three years, when Katie is six months old, and I’m visiting a fertility specialist because I want to conceive another child. The doctor breaks it to me that he can’t fill another prescription for Clomid and Estrace until I lose weight. I argue that two of my “normal” weight sisters also had fertility problems, possibly because our mom took DES when she was pregnant with us. He shrugs off the effects of DES as scientifically inconclusive. I point out that the medication he prescribed me just over a year earlier had helped me conceive Katie, despite my polycystic ovary syndrome. He tries to tell me I’ve gained fifty pounds since then. I inspect the chart and see the nurse has transposed two numbers.  I'm only twenty pounds heavier than I had been the first go round, and since I had just had a baby a few months before, I figured he’d cut me some slack. He didn’t and told me to come back when I lost weight. I joined a gym. I followed a low-glycemic index diet. I became healthier.  I did not lose weight.

I was able to conceive without medical intervention, but I miscarried just a couple days after the pee stick showed two faint lines.  I've never conceived again.  Try explaining that to my six year old when she begs for a little brother or a little sister.

A few months later I took a health-risk assessment at work. The BMI chart categorizes me as obese, but my blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol have always been normal, and this time, my good cholesterol elevated eleven points from the previous year and was now in the “excellent” range. But I weighed the same.  No weight loss.  Weird.  How could I be so healthy and so fat at the same time?

Then I stumbled upon the book Heath at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon and broke my twisted thinking about fat.  In twelve chapters, written for a layperson but including 419 references to scientific studies, Dr. Bacon disproves the myth that fat and health are mutually exclusive.  She shows us that a big chunk of weight loss research, which doctors and the media refer to when they start lecturing us to lose weight, is funded by people who work for the diet industry. 

“At least seven of the nine members on the National Institutes of Health’s Obesity Task Force were directors of weight-loss clinics, and most had multiple financial relationships with private industry.” Bacon points out that from 1970-2004, during the so called “obesity epidemic” the average lifespan rose from 70.8 to 77.8. She addresses the issue that many diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease associated with "obesity" are found in thin people too. She raises our awareness of the vast diversity of size among the human population, and proves that good health can be achieved for people of all sizes.
Got Bacon?  Here's her advice: give up trying to lose weight.  “Enjoy a variety of real food, primarily plants” no matter where your body falls on the size spectrum.  Engage in "active living".  Move your body in pleasurable ways.  And most of all, love yourself. 

This health book is not designed to raise profits for the multi-billion dollar diet industry. It raises awareness that health comes in all sizes, and it has raised my self-worth immeasurably.  Now if only we can get people in power to pay attention.  Let's ship 'em off to Camp Empathy with the other bullies and have them study this book for a semester.

What do you say, Cameron Larkins of the World?  If I could tell you one thing it is this: I understand how you feel.  You are not alone.