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Saturday, 17 July 2010

Fat Kids

When I was about 9, there was one fat child in my class called Ellen. Or Ellen the Melon as she was known. She would stand next to me in cookery class and scream hysterically when we we were making sausage rolls because my mum gave me sausage meat with lots of garlic and herbs mashed into it. 'Eurrgh I hate garlic - Miiiissss!'

When I was invited to her party I asked mum for some chocolates as a present and she, with characteristic diplomacy spluttered: 'I'm not giving chocolates to that big heap!' But growing up, I don't remember even thinking about whether I was too fat or thin or even considering my body shape until well into my teens. The word 'slim' was used, not 'thin' and several relatives and teachers commented on the fact I was a 'bit too slim' even though I ate like a half starved gannet. Being thin was not a worthy goal.

It sure as hell is now. And The Girl, even though she's just six, and built like a twiglet is acutely aware of 'fat' being 'bad'. To be honest I'm anxious about her growing up in a world with so many toxic messages about acceptable body weight for girls. I've hidden my scales and she has never ever seen them. I don't use the word 'fat' at all, and I've threatened The Boy with death if he ever teases her about her weight. I've told my dear dad that the word 'buxom' is not acceptable. 'But buxom is great!' he says, bewildered, having grown up lusting after real women like Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren.

I was disturbed though to read that parents who fail to help their obese child, and ignore all advice could be considered guilty of neglect. Now come on - we've all seen the lumbering children pouring vast packets of monster munch down their faces as they heft along the street. And don't tell me you don't tighten your lips when you see a small child drinking some fizzy crap drink in their pushchair. Oh yes you do. Just before you check yourself for snobbery, a little part of you thinks: Coke!? For breakfast?! You bad bad parent.

The thing is, this proposal will target the very poor because the poorest sections of the population are the ones who feed the most processed food to their children. Add to this, the fact that we have a generation that seem unable to cook (doubly ironic when posh restaurants are serving up the cheaper cuts of meat our grannies would have knocked up in their kitchens blindfolded), and you have a generation of children less healthy than their parents. Remember that boy Connor McCreaddie, eight years old and weighing 14 stone who was briefly in the news because the council were considering taking him into care? Legions of middle class journos sped up to North Tyneside to lambast his mother. But I'd like to have seen any of them put together decent meals on benefits, with the nearest superstore two bus rides away and a fast food outlet on every corner. No greengrocers, no butchers - all driven out of business by the Superstore.

Sure there are parents you want to slap round the head (or maybe it's just me) and shout: 'You are condemning your child to a lifetime of obesity and health problems you drongo. Put that doughnut down!' But these initiatives seem to do nothing but stigmatise and blame the poorest people which is perhaps simpler than tackling the deeper malaise of obesity; the massive power of the Food Standards Agency, the fact that the likes of Tesco are driving small foodshops out of business and fast food is cheap and tastes good because it's so pumped up with fat and sugar, and teaching children to cook.

Actually teaching The Boy to cook was like pulling teeth until he realised that girls are impressed by a man who knows how to chop an onion.


Dan Bruna said...

You may have whipped up a hornets nest here - I do hope so, it's good to discuss!
The very problem with the local stores was the very fact the mighty supermarkets were/are so much cheaper - the problem in diet and nutrition, I hate to say, lies in ignorance.
We need to help educate in a simpler manner,become proactive rather than reactive and discuss the benefits rather than the punishments.
Until we stop the ''So what'' culture, ignorance will forever remain bliss!

Jane said...

I do agree Dan that personal responsibility is important - I'm just uncomfortable with stigmatising one group instead of looking at the wider reasons why obesity is on the increase.

platespinner said...

I completely agree with looking more widely at the causes of obesity and poor health (I work in the public sector and know for example that life expectancy in the more deprived parts of my town is 7 years lower for men than in the more affluent areas) although I would probably be guilty of the disapproving head shake at times too (though my two year old loves 'choc-choc'.)

In terms of healthy, fresh and affordable food, my husband and I have regularly been moaning about the prices and quality of meat in the supermarket. We don't have many butchers around and those we do have are expensive. However, I stumbled across a website the other day for a local farm which delivers meat packs. I'd heard of this sort of thing before, but never thought to see if there was one in my area. I also assumed it would be very expensive and something that definitely fell into the middle class 'yummy mummy' bracket.

Well, I logged onto Asda online (where we tend to shop) and I went through all the quantities of meat one by one...and the farm did it for £2.50 more (on a £25 pack to last the month). It arrived yesterday and all looks so nice. Plus delivery was free so no need to get on the bus and get there. You also get to feel good about the fact the food is local and ethically reared with less chemicals etc.

We're having some of the sausages tonight so we'll have to see if they taste as nice as they look.

I'd be surprised if many people would even know farms like this exist, or think of them as a viable option. I guess the other obstacle would be knowing how to cook things with it, but again the farm included a free recipe booklet.

Jane said...

Let me know about the sausages Platespinner! Meat packs sound like a great idea - that way you can still go to a supermarket for cleaning stuff and tins but get your fresh food locally perhaps? Depends what's available in your area. But as I type this I'm acutely aware these are middle class concerns.

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall did a programme where he was trying to persuade a single mum to buy a free range chicken but she pointed out that she can't afford to pay nearly £6 for a chicken when a battery chicken costs about £2.50.

Liz said...

It's not just bad eating. It's exercise - or the lack of it. I live in Australia and have a nine-year-old son and he does after-school sport almost every night of the week (his choice, not mine!!) as well as playing sport at weekends. Yet I never hear friends from England who have similarly aged kids talking about having to ferry theirs to all this after-school sport - unless their kid goes to a private school, perhaps.

Not all poorer people eat badly, though. I grew up in a working-class community in the English Midlands in the late 1960s/early 1970s and most of us ate well. There were families who didn't - I recall one family who had fish and chips from the local chippie every night of the week. The families who ate badly didn't necessarily have less money than those who ate well - they just spent it less wisely. They were more likely to smoke, too. Seriously, you could give some parents a million pounds to spend each week and they still wouldn't make healthy choices.

Jane said...

@Liz - yes you're right of course. I was brought up in the seventies too and don't recall the amount of processed food being around - not that my mum would have gone near it - so I never developed a taste for it.

And exercise - oh yes. Amazing how many children are ferried to school by car when it's only a 10 minute walk!

I read somewhere that sport is a particularly good idea for girls because when they get into it as children they see it as Recreation as opposed to part of a weight loss regime which is how many many adult women regard it.