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Fat Kids Libelled

From The Huffington Post: Obesity Linked to Poor School Performance.

More recent information from the The BODY Project shows that obese youth have problems with reading and arithmetic, memory, attention, and decision-making. Imagine how learning, and consequently school performance, will be impaired if you are having trouble in these essential areas of brain functioning. And, by the way, the more overweight youth are the more they experience the medical consequences of obesity, and the greater the difficulties they have -- in all these areas of cognitive functioning.

This is from last year, before the study in question was published. Before I write a horrified rant, let's take a look at the source.

The article quoted above was written by Lloyd I. Sederer, a psychiatrist who is serving as the Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. The work that he's referring to in the article was published by Antonio Convit, M.D., a Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at New York University. Judging from his publication record, Dr. Convit runs a research group that specializes in building disease models around the idea that obesity causes chronic inflammation, and that chronic inflammation causes all sorts of cognitive problems. One of his recent papers compared the cognitive functioning of obese teenagers with type II diabetes to the cognitive functioning of obese teenagers without type II diabetes, and found that the non-diabetic teenagers performed better. That's right. The study compared obese teenagers to obese teenagers. There were no non-obese teenagers involved. Just fat kids with diabetes and weight-matched healthy fat kids. The study was published in November of 2010. The two papers that have come out of Covit's research group since that time were on unrelated topics, so it appears that this is based on conjecture around Preliminary evidence for brain complications in obese adolescents with type 2 diabetes mellitus, published in the journal Diabetologia.

Dr. Sederer's article, particularly the quote above, does not make sense in light of the research. Additionally, exposing fat kids and their peers, parents and teachers to these ideas (ideas that are completely unsupported!) is socially destructive. In my opinion, this article should never have been written. It misrepresents the research, and what will people take away from it? Even educated and intelligent readers will think, "fat kids are stupid." It supports existing social biases and imbues them with scientific authority. This is so irresponsible that I'm at a loss for words. Cognitive impairment, indeed.

Dr. Sederer wrote another article for the Huffington Post after the paper was published: The Body Project: School Program Measures Obesity Right Along With Grades. If you look very, very carefully in this article, you can find statements that actually reflect the research, for example:

Students with high BMIs are selected for the project because they are most at risk for sugar, cholesterol and BP problems -- and thus for problems with reading and arithmetic, memory, attention, and decision-making, problems that can impair school performance.

This implies that the cognitive problems are actually related to medical conditions that are correlated with higher BMIs - not the high BMI itself. However, for the most part, the article continues to make generalizations about fat kids' cognitive abilities:

...there is another message that has not yet reached the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, or other educators seeking to improve education in this country: that message is that being overweight or obese interferes with a young person's ability to learn at school....
...information from the The BODY Project shows that obese youth have problems with reading and arithmetic, memory, attention, and decision-making....

I'll try to be understanding and charitable. Apparently, Dr. Sederer is assuming that all these medical conditions are inevitable consequences of having a high BMI and that therefore, the cognitive problems associated with them are also the result of a high BMI.

However, only a small minority of fat kids have these conditions. For example, the best number I could find for the prevalence of type II diabetes among teenagers on the Centers for Disease Control website was 7.2 per 100,000 (0.0072%). And again, there is no data in evidence that compares the average cognitive abilities of fat and thin teenagers.

Here Comes the Rant

Is the good doctor really unaware of the social forces at work in fat kids' lives and of the potential for harm? That just doesn't seem possible; he's a mental health professional for chissakes. At school, fat kids are bullied, looked down upon, routinely underestimated, and generally treated like garbage. At home, they're more likely to come from poor families and high stress environments. They're also more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minorities. The deck is already stacked against them. Writing and publishing articles that are based on inappropriate generalizations but that appear to lend scientific legitimacy to the idea that fat kids are mentally damaged and putting your authority as the Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health behind it - it's nothing short of evil.

We already tell fat kids that they're unattractive, physically incompetent and weak willed. By all means, let's knock down the only source of self esteem that they're left with. After all, how many fat kids have been bullied, excluded, and looked down upon but have been able to fall back on their intelligence and talent? That can't be allowed! We must make it clear that they are completely worthless unless they become thin.

And how will they become thin? Well, there's no dependable method, really. Sometimes kids are fat for a while and then grow out of it. "Eat less, move more" doesn't necessarily work long term, although certainly being physically active and eating a healthy diet is good for kids of all sizes. However, when when you make a big fuss about weight, kids become more likely to stay fat or develop an eating disorder. Weight loss surgery for teenagers is becoming a popular idea, thanks to Allergen. However, I strongly suspect that WLS is far riskier for teenagers than being fat. So, this article is reinforcing - in a potentially harmful way - the idea that fat kids are damaged and inferior, when there is no safe and dependable way to make them thin. It would be cruel and completely pointless even if the assumptions it's based on were true.

Let's take a step back in time, shall we? I've got a story to tell.

My dad and his sisters were fat kids in the New York City schools. They were from a stressful home environment; a poor immigrant family. They grew up in the 1930s to the 1960s. I'm sure that there are still many like them in American cities today.

The children in the picture in Fat Kids Targeted are my dad and his sister. Dad was relentlessly bullied. He concentrated on school, and he had teachers who acted as mentors. He attended Stuyvesant High School, the famous NYC magnet school, and then Columbia University. He finished off with a Ph.D. from UC Berkley. Both of his sisters also attended university. Dad was one of those fat kids who internalized the idea that they can't be physically competent. Good thing they forgot to tell him and his teachers that fat kids are dumb.

My dad and his sisters: these were very vulnerable kids. What would have happened to them if their teachers had focused on their weight? If these teachers had failed to support them academically because they assumed that fat kids couldn't be smart? What if they, as kids, had never been allowed to think of themselves as intelligent or had been told that losing weight, not learning, should be their number one priority? They'd probably be sweeping floors now, their potential lost to society. Instead they've led long and productive professional lives as fat people.

Not only is this possible, it's common. Most fat kids grow up to be productive members of society even if they stay fat. And, they are more likely than not going to be knowledge workers. Impairing their ability to achieve and advance academically by promoting negative stereotypes is incredibly irresponsible. I can see a fat underclass being created before my eyes. I guess that grinding racial and ethnic minorities under our heels hasn't been enough for us.

Deb Lemire Featured in Persephone Magazine | Illinois State Rep Has a Really Bad Idea

vesta44's picture
May 10th, 2011 | Link | It's adding another element

It's adding another element to the on-going class warfare. The rich (and thin, white, cis-gender) get richer and the poor (fat, often POC) get poorer because bootstraps y'all. Equality doesn't exist in this country, and, sadly, I don't think it ever will. There are too many people invested in keeping what they have to let anyone else get out of the gutter, and they're too invested in making sure that as many people who aren't like them either stay in the gutter or get pushed into the gutter. Heaven forbid that anyone who isn't exactly like them should have what they have or even come close to having what they have. What better way to do that than stigmatize people for things they cannot change - skin color, gender presentation, body size, etc?

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

loniemc May 10th, 2011 | Link | I also wonder how many of

I also wonder how many of these kids are on diets. Thanks to Ancel Keys and other studies, we know that dieting causes reduced mental function as well as reduced ability to concentrate. This is a fact that researchers love to leave out of the equation regularly.

richie79's picture
May 10th, 2011 | Link | The conclusions of this

The conclusions of this 'study' represent the worst kind of dangerous, stigmatising manipulation of the facts to support a particular position. There's a long and dark historical precedent of attempts by medical 'professionals' to scientifically 'prove' the reduced intelligence / smaller brains of various minority groups in order to justify or excuse discrimination against them, a precedent of which (as Deeleigh points out) a psychiatrist such as Dr. Sederer is almost certainly well aware. And unsurprisingly, as fat people have been elevated to the role of folk devils by society, so there has been a corresponding rise in the number of specious attempts to ascribe this 'limited intelligence' tag to them over the last few years.

Whilst I do know of a couple of fat kids who whilst very intelligent were turned off formal education by their treatment in school, my own experience generally backs up the idea that the larger kids (including an ex who is now herself a Dr.) are more likely to apply themselves to academic and creative success because they find other avenues such as sports or social status closed to them. The smartest girl in my primary school (and the most sarcastic) was also easily the biggest, to the point she'd probably be living in fear of Social Services today. Moreover, most of the larger kids in my high school were amongst the most academically able third who 'stayed on' after 18 to take their 'A'-levels and ultimately attend University. Of course, to claim this would be conceding that fat people's contribution to society is anything but completely negative and destructive - tantamout to heresy in the current climate.

Then again, whilst never exactly conducive to developing emotionally balanced fat people it seems that thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver, Michelle Obama et al the school environment on both sides of the Atlantic has become immeasurably more hostile in the last few years. When teachers and pupils alike single fat children out as representative of all that's wrong in the world, when class assignments include making anti-obesity posters, writing poems about why it's bad to be fat and calculating calories and BMI as part of maths lessons, when legislators and charities decree your particular characteristic is unique in not meriting protection from the bullying that's instead cast as 'motivation' to conform, how can they possibly feel valued, welcome or engaged to want to learn more about a world that by the age of six or seven has already decided they and their parents are worthy only of scorn?

In the same way that ever-more extreme forms of dieting, WLS, stigma-related stress and other conditions might indeed ultimately bring about the oft-predicted scenario of a cohort of fat people with shorter life expectancies than their parents, this generation of fat children could well turn out to be less academically and socially successful than their predecessors. And no doubt the 'experts' will then arrogantly crow about how they've been proved right without ever being forced to examine their own role in creating a climate in which their own predictions come to pass. The limitations of this so-called study are clearly visible to anyone not so blinkered by fat hate that they'll unquestioningly believe anything that claims to lend scientific legitimacy to the deep-rooted prejudices of an entire culture. Unfortunately the propaganda war on fat people has been such an unprecedented success that such voices (at least in mainstream discourse) are now few and far between.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

worrier May 10th, 2011 | Link | Over a number of years we've

Over a number of years we've been seeing a lot of "research" and articles and pronouncements by educated professional people writing in their area of expertise trying to "prove" that fat people have extremely bad health, life, productivity outcomes. We've even seen bizarre prounouncements from educated people saying that fat people are bad for the planet, and are more likely to make their friends fat by just being fat around them. The negative prounouncements from the uneducated masses are bad enough, but there are more and more educated people coming out with this stuff. They get listened to and believed by a lot of people. They get quoted by people to try and prove that being fat is universally bad. As a members of a very small group that haven't swallowed the kool-aid what on Earth do we do? When more and more people are gulping down the kool-aid, and educated people who should know better are gulping down the kool-aid, what do we do? It looks like a runaway train to me. I'm damned if I know what we should do or just how bad a direction it's all heading in.

richie79's picture
May 11th, 2011 | Link | Emerald, I agree that both

Emerald, I agree that both the motivation behind and the potential implications of the metformin trial you mentioned are truly terrifying. And as usual, the Beeb see it as entirely unproblematic, even positive. I've posted in more depth about it on the Forums.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

alex.k May 11th, 2011 | Link | Richie summed up a lot of

Richie summed up a lot of what I was planning to say better than I ever could, so I'll keep this short. That article is positively shocking. What disability and ethnic minority groups know as the darkest of all times - the times in which people with disabilities were 'presumed stupid' from the get-go and no effort was put into giving them the education they needed to blossom, and the times in which character traits - notably intelligence or intent - were inferred by such things as the circumference of one's head or the shape of one's nose today remain bleak chapters in humanity's history, in fact they're so shaming that I've witnessed people read such accounts and actually physically burst into tears.

For too long now I've tried to convince myself that surely, no agitator could manage to score with similar rhetoric and similar pseudoscience ever again, not with humanity this sensitised to the atrocities of the past. Yeah, I've known for a while now that I was wrong. In fact, I don't think it ever stopped happening.I was reminded of it again recently by reading about Phillipe Rushton's (a lecturer at a Canadian university - yes this guy's still allowed to teach for a reason not known to me) repeated attempts to classify peoples of color and peoples of Arab ethnicity as inferior to Whites and Asians intellectually on biological grounds, and a crowd of so called "academics" buying into the rush. So yes, unfortunately, society is still receptive to this kind of mind pollution of the most vile and destructive kind. Apparently, inferring biological "truths" about a person's intelligence by the size of their head is shocking and wrong, but inferring lower cognitive skills by the circumference of a person's waist is OK (if it's over two corners or not makes little to no difference in people's eventual short-cutting it to fat = officially stupid becuz science sez so).

I refuse to believe that Dr. Sederer swore his oath to "do no harm", because publishing vile pseudo-scientific garbage like that to push one's own cred in certain economically powerful circles is revolting, to say the least. Surely he can't be that ignorant of the social implications of this horrid agitation, surely!! The fact that he most probably does makes it even worse, and gives his effort at self promotion a disturbing undercurrent.

I'm not religious, but if I was, I'd pray every day for the grassroots fat to join us FA's before even more damage is done. I mean now that science is working hard to "prove" that fat people are of lower cognitive ability, what's next, fat people being denied the right to decide for themselves, because they're "cognitively impaired" and need supervision? Compulsory fat gulags for the "incapable, lazy and mentally stunted" that are the obese?

DeeLeigh's picture
May 12th, 2011 | Link | Hey, alex. I just wanted to

Hey, alex. I just wanted to say that fat admirers are welcome in fat acceptance. In fact, Paul McAleer, who founded this site, is an FA and also a small fat himself. I believe that Brian at Red no. 3 also identifies as an FA.

It's only natural to want to make the world a better place for the person you care most about. It's also interesting to me how a lot of the men who are involved in fat acceptance identify primary as FAs, even when they're also fat.

Most of us are pretty strongly anti-feeder, though. As far as I'm concerned, deliberate weight gain is the mirror image of dieting and it's, if anything, an even worse idea.

alex.k May 12th, 2011 | Link | DeeLeigh - when I used the

DeeLeigh - when I used the short FA I meant fat activist, not fat admirers or feeders. I identify as a fat activist. I apologise for the ambiguous short form, just occurred to me it could mean something else too, it didn't in my mind when I wrote it.

I'll be sure to write what I mean out next time to avoid confusion. :,)

DeeLeigh's picture
May 12th, 2011 | Link | Ha. Yes, I misunderstood

Ha. Yes, I misunderstood what you meant there. Hadn't had my morning coffee yet. Smiling

Alyssa May 15th, 2011 | Link | Sample size of 36!

I might have missed this in one of the comments above--but I thought I'd bring it up just in case. I went to the Diabetologia web site to try to read this article. Only the abstract was free. The entire article is $34.00. (I'm going to see if I can access the article for free through my public library.) However, the abstract stated that this study was done on a total sample of 36 students--18 obese teenagers with type II diabetes and 18 obese teenagers not diagnosed with type II diabetes. This is an extremely small sample, and obviously one from which any competent researcher would not draw generalizations. It is beyond sad that a so-called respectable medical journal would publish such garbage. At the same time, it is further evidence of the social prejudice toward fat people I have found so often in the medical profession.

DeeLeigh's picture
May 16th, 2011 | Link | You're right - and sample

You're right, and I'm really glad you made that point. The sample size was probably so small because there are are very few teenagers with type II diabetes.

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