Why Genes Matter

In 1890, an advertisement said, “Respectfully tell the ladies use ‘Fat-Ten-U’ food to get plump.” This wonderful food supplement promised to make unhappy, thin women “Plump & Rosy with HONEST Fleshiness of Form.” The ad includes the usual “before” and “after” pictures—except the “before” picture looks like a modern “after” picture. It is the thin woman who turns away in shame, and the plump woman who throws her head back in pride, showing off her beautiful fat body.

Those were the days! Imagine being told that thin people are the ones with a problem and that plumpness means you’re strong, healthy, and beautiful. Men, too, were supposed to look solid and substantial.

This ad really is like the modern ones, though. It says: Don’t look like you look now; look like this picture. It says you should be ashamed of how you look and also worry about your health. And it sells a product, which is made by a “professor,” so it must be scientific. It promises magic, too: in just four weeks it will make you be a different shape and make you happy.

The Obesity Crisis

In the beginning of the twenty-first century, people are not supposed to be obese. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than one-third of U.S. adults (34.9 percent) are obese. Health officials are especially concerned about weight problems among children. Studies show that childhood and teen obesity can lead to life-shortening illnesses. According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation in Canada, obesity rates in children have almost tripled in the last twenty-five years. Approximately 26 percent of Canadian children and teens ages 2 to 17 are currently overweight or obese. In the U.S., the CDC estimates that approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and teens ages 2 to 19 are obese.

The CDC and many other organizations blame the obesity epidemic on fast foods, which are relatively inexpensive, available, and full of fat and sugar. They blame parents for not being home to cook nutritious dinners. They also blame television and electronic games that encourage sedentary activity. Schools are blamed for not providing students with enough gym classes.

The United States has declared war on the “obesity epidemic.” In 2010, President Barack Obama established the Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Its goal is to return the childhood obesity rate to 5 percent by 2030. That same year, the "Let’s Move! campaign was launched by First Lady Michelle Obama. "Let’s Move! helps children and families learn to make better food choices, encourages children to increase their physical activity, and provides healthy foods in schools.

The United States has declared war on the “obesity epidemic.”

This “war” wouldn’t be a bad thing if it really helped people to live healthier lives. Being overweight is associated with diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Of course no one wants these illnesses. Many young people are already worried about their weight. They look at pictures of celebrities and sports stars, and then they look at themselves. Maybe their parents are giving them a hard time about their eating, too. Perhaps their parents are giving them fast food for dinner or cooking food that might be very high in calories, and they are being teased about their weight at school.

Teens and adults can get into big trouble at school or work if they harass someone for having a different skin color, being a different religion, or needing crutches. Young people tease and bully one another anyway, but inside they know that it’s mean to tease someone who is in a wheelchair. After all, it’s not his or her fault. What about people who weigh too much, though? Maybe it is their fault because they eat too much, don’t exercise enough, or don’t have self-control.

If you’re the person being teased, maybe you even agree with them. Everybody knows it’s better to be Harry Potter (skinny, kind, hardworking, and magic, even if he does have glasses and a scar) than his cousin Dudley (fat, greedy, lazy, stupid, and mean). Even Harry thinks that Dudley looks like a baby pig in his baby pictures and that it’s so funny when a magician gives Dudley a pig’s tail.

Of course you’re not supposed to like Harry’s mean cousin, but if Dudley was a black or Japanese stereotype instead of a fat stereotype, J. K. Rowling would have had to change how she wrote the books. Racism isn’t allowed. Weightism is. After all, even the experts say it’s wrong for you to be obese. They say “unhealthy,” but that’s still bad.

The years right before and during high school and middle school have always been a tough time of life for young people and their bodies. It’s the time your body changes, sometimes either too fast or too slowly. It’s also a period of spending a whole lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror. Some kids skip meals to lose weight or go on “magic” diets that are supposed to melt the pounds away.

It is hard to maintain a good self-image when your body and mind are changing so fast. It’s even harder if you have a weight problem, especially with the scary things the scientists and newspapers are saying. Is your weight making you sick? How should you look? Can you feel OK about yourself if you don’t look that way? What should you do?