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Dads, Daughters and Diets: Obama’s Mistake

By sandymaple |

bathroom-scale-sm250A few days ago, my 9-year-old commented on how her brand new jeans were feeling kind of tight.  When I told her that she was probably going through yet another growth spurt, she got quiet.  After a long pause, she told me that her papa had suggested that perhaps she shouldn’t eat so much.  I know for a fact that what he really told her was that she shouldn’t eat so much candy and that it was her teeth he was concerned about, not her weight.  But as I told him later that evening, it doesn’t really matter what he said, it’s what she heard that counts.  And she heard that she eats too much. 

Her reaction didn’t surprise me one bit.  I still vividly recall when I was about her age and my own father casually mentioned that I was getting a little chubby.  He said it gently and with a smile on his face, but I was devastated. Already insecure about the way my body was shaping up, his words whittled away at my already weakening self-esteem.

The last thing a young girl wants to believe is that the most important man in her life finds her somehow less than perfect. Which is why I cringed when I read where President Barack Obama referred to his own daughter Malia as “chubby.” How did she feel to realize that the most important man in her life found fault with her appearance and then told the whole world about it?

President Obama’s comment about Malia’s  weight was made some time ago but has come to light again as First Lady Michelle Obama embarks on her campaign against childhood obesity.  Mrs. Obama seems to be attempting to personalize the issue by using her daughters as examples of how even the most diligent and health-conscious parents can end up with overweight and unhealthy kids.  As my colleague Jeanne Sager points out, this public dissemination of Sasha and Malia’s weight issues is inappropriate and puts both girls at higher risk of developing an eating disorder. In an article in the Huffington Post, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, executive director of F.E.A.S.T. and author of “Eating with Your Anorexic,” agrees.

But for 11-year-old Malia, being called out by dad as being chubby seems particularly harsh.  Like I did, she probably recognizes that appearances matter when it comes to being accepted among your peers.  But I can’t help but wonder if she is as crushed as I was to realize that her appearance matters to her father, too.

Image: slushpup/Flickr

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19 thoughts on “Dads, Daughters and Diets: Obama’s Mistake

  1. Anon says:

    I’m not sure that everyone is so hurt by their parents comments though. My mother called me fat outright (even though I was under weight) and made fun of my thighs all the time. I never developed an eating disorder, nor do I diet.

  2. baconsmom says:

    If fat weren’t a moral panic in this country, this would not be a problem.

    Fat does not automatically equal unhealthy, and it is this assumption that makes using perfectly valid descriptors like “chubby” some sort of insult. Get over the false “obesity epidemic”, stop treating fat people like pariahs, and I think you’ll find a lot more families are able to focus on truly important things – yes, like HEALTH – instead of conforming to a beauty standard that is designed to exclude the largest number of people possible.

  3. alison says:

    There was a time when calling a kid chubby could be seen as a sign of affection and, as in many things, it really depends on the context and the intent. If random comments about weight which *could be* construed as negative/damaging to self esteem were all it took to make someone anorexic, every single person in the world would be anorexic, including the extremely skinny kids. Anorexia is a lot more complex than that.

  4. L says:

    It’s nice that the previous commenters were all completely impervious to adult influence when they themselves were children…

    Like the author, I remember being stung by comments made by my parents and teachers that – in retrospect – were intended to be fun, funny, silly, light-hearted teasing. But they stuck with me 20+ years later. Kids, especially pre-teens and teens, can be extremely self-conscious and alert to their appearances. One teacher, who was very friendly and whom I am SURE wasn’t aiming to embarrass me, teased me about my walk, and I was self-conscious about it for YEARS. My dad, whom I loved and love still, teased me about my clothing choices and sometimes about my dirty hair.

    It’s not necessarily about “inducing” an eating disorder, but it is about understanding the teen mindset and self-esteem and how incredibly vitally important other people’s opinions are. A little tease that the adult forgets about seconds later can be something that kid remembers forever.

  5. GP says:

    In caucasian, Western culture, its not really nice to call out anyone over, say, 2 years old as being chubby. If a kid has a weight problem, it should be dealt with gently, like not mentioning the weight, but focusing on making more healthful foods available, portion control and setting the stage for exercise. My dad and uncle both said I was fat in plain words when I was 10. My family doctor coyly asked if there was “anything I’d like to talk to him about”. No, there wasn’t. I didn’t really care about my weight, I was just a kid. Til I was a teen, at which point I lived on a can of diet coke, a rice cake and dexatrim all day til dinner and stopped having my period. Nice. Nobody really seemed to care what I was actually eating or doing. Since I participated in sports, somehow the issues all got sorted out, but no thanks to anyone in a leadership position that was supposed to be helping me. It just kind of happened. This will not be the case with my daughter. I have already clearly instructed my husband that he will only talk about healthfulness, not weight, with our daughter.

  6. L says:

    Re: GP’s comment about Western culture… It’s true! And cultural variations are a bitch… My MIL, who is Chinese, used to tell me that I’m gaining weight as though it’s a huge compliment.

  7. alison says:

    I never said I was impervious to the comments made by adults in my life, I just don’t recall any comments made about *my* weight and I still ended up with an eating disorder, a disorder I still struggle with. I had parents who were all about boosting my self-esteem, but obviously, it didn’t prevent me from taking a similar path as people whose parents did the opposite. As I said, anorexia is complex and the causes can’t be distilled down to comments which are taken out of context.

  8. Giant Panda says:

    L you are right – some cultures it is totally fine to talk about people’s weight, right to their face. Chinese being the great example (hey, I have a Chinese MIL too, and gaining/losing weight is the first thing she comments on EVERY time I see her, even if my weight has not varied one iota). In Japan there is also a social fat phobia, but people feel free to comment on your weight all the time – I was particularly stung one day (when I had finally gotten back to my pre-pregnancy weight), to be told that my son was really big (he’s average) but after all, it was to be expected because he had a BIG mother too…. :( That’s not to say eating disorders don’t exist in these countries though. It is seriously on the rise in Japan, and not really recognized as such. China will be next. The number of diet pills / drinks / devices that are sold in these countries is astounding.

  9. Sonya, RN says:

    Can our first Lady Michelle Obama say ANYTHING without it being blown out of proportion. Here we go with all the folks mentally messed up due to something that their parents said to them ump-teen years ago! Get over it! It’s sad that many of you are still dealing with this issue into your adulthood. Malia and Sasha will be just fine! Their are both aware that they are loved unconditinally (unlike some of you) by their parents, grandmother, uncle, aunts, etc. Thank God the US now has a First Lady who will keep it real, and be open and honest. White folk are so used to being fed lie after lie, and liking it. If this comment is stirring up all of this you guys need to go and get some counseling either from your church or another service. It’s time you guys started lovin yourself and get healed of the lies that your Moma, Daddy, Uncle or Aunt, ex-boyfriend or ex-husband spoke to you about your weight. Eating disorders are definitely a mental/spiritual disorder that manifest itself via food addictions. Praying for yall! In the meantime, First Lady Michelle Obama PLEASE keep KEEPIN IT REAL, a sistah like me knows exactly what cha talkin bout! Namaste!

  10. shesameanie says:

    CommentsThanks, Giant Panda! Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  11. [...] Dads, Daughters and Diets: Obama’s Mistake [...]

  12. [...] Dads, Daughters and Diets: Obama’s Mistake [...]

  13. Darklady says:

    To Sonya RN: The First Lady is no more REAL than any other politician’s wife. The words she speaks are no more real than any other First Lady’s “pet cause.” But kudos to you for bringing race into it, that hadn’t even been mentioned in a whole day! So much for “prayin for yall”… And so much for “getting over it,” and I don’t mean a childhood.

  14. [...] Dads, Daughters and Diets:  Obama’s Mistake [...]

  15. [...] Dads, Daughters and Diets:  Obama’s Mistake [...]

  16. [...] Dads, Daughters and Diets: Obama’s Mistake [...]

  17. [...] year during the launch of her Let’s Move campaign. Then, President Obama was remembering when Malia was getting “a little chubby” and Michelle Obama talked about changes in her family’s eating habits after their [...]

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