Our Daughters Bodies: The Personal and Political

by Ashley Solomon

With childhood obesity tripling in the last 30 years and the prevalence of this      life-threatening condition reaching almost 20% among American youth (CDC,      2008), Michelle Obama’s recent initiative to address childhood obesity could      not come at more crucial time. I was thrilled to hear that the first lady was       planning to use her pivotal influence to combat what has truly become an epidemic.

I stayed thrilled until I heard that Mrs. Obama kicked off the campaign on January 29, 2010 by sharing her own concern about her daughters’ weight, as encouraged by their family physician. She noted that the First Family’s doctor had warned her that the girls may be becoming overweight. Mrs. Obama reflected, “In my eyes I thought my children were perfect […] I didn’t see the changes.”

Unfortunately, this was not the first time that the “weight issues” of the Obama daughters was put on public display. President Obama, in a 2008 interview with Parents magazine, noted, “A couple of years ago – you’d never know it by looking at her now – Malia was getting a little chubby.” Cringe!!!!

First, it’s important for me to note that the intent of the Obamas, particularly Mrs. Obama, is, in my opinion, extremely admirable. The message that we must take notice of our (literally) growing problem is vital and can come from no better source than the First Parents, to whom many other parents look to for modeling. And speaking of modeling, the Obamas do an excellent job of that as well. Following the expression of concern by their doctor, the Obamas began making healthy changes to the family’s lifestyle – no weekday television, water instead of sugary beverages, cutting back on (but not eliminating – good demonstration of moderation!) burgers.

However, comments in national magazines or on national platforms about your daughter’s weight? Think again!

Sasha and Malia, whose lives have already been put on an international stage without truly being given the right to contest it, are already in a vulnerable position. Like all celebrities, they will inevitably (and in many ways already have) be scrutinized on everything from their athleticism to their dating choices to their hairstyles. And in true western culture tradition, their bodies will certainly be at the center of our rapt attention – and, unfortunately, dissection – as they continue to grow and mature into young women. It’s the sickening American way.

And then to have your Mom and Dad go and tell the world that they thought you had put on a few too many pounds? Oh, the pre-adolescent horror!

Seriously though, to put even more focus on the girls’ physique (“Do you think Malia looks chunky?” “Oh, I don’t know, her hips did look a little fuller in that jumper she was wearing…”) is not only putting their self-esteem at jeopardy, but also putting unnecessary attention on weight, rather than health, which should be at the center of the obesity initiative.

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers – and in fact BMI statistics and the like can be useful in helping parents understand the realities of their child’s condition. But far more important is for the parent, and the child, to understand the health risks associated with that extra weight. And indeed, weight is not always a good indicator of health.

So I urge the Obamas, who are certainly reading my blog at least weekly, to consider their use of language and the use of their daughters as examples in public health initiatives, particularly when it means subjecting their bodies to undue scrutiny. Do I think that Sasha and Malia will develop eating disorders because of a few public comments? No, definitely not. But setting an example to both the girls and the public on how to talk about and respect each others’ boundaries will certainly be protective against such problems in the future.

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