Last week I received an email from someone I like and respect who reported that he’d unsubscribed from the Endurance mailing list because he found the “work we do around ending childhood obesity to be troubling, offensive and potentially detrimental to kids.” He had come to this conclusion from reading our website and/or my emails and not from any in person communication or participation in our programs. I wanted to open up discussion about this topic and also address his concerns because I imagine there are others who may have similar concerns. I wanted to articulate some of my thoughts around this complex sensitive issue and discuss why we are currently using the language we use in our marketing materials and how this language differs from our conversations with our clients and our friends. I also know that it can be difficult even for me to discuss the work I do in many settings because of all the complex social issues that it involves.
I have no investment in making people skinny or in everyone looking the same. I don’t believe in dieting or an unhealthy obsession with weight. I got into this work because I love being outdoors and being active. It’s been a consistent force in my life. I love sharing that with others and chose to work with a population of kids who needed someone who was patient, kind and non-intimidating to exercise with. I believe in making exercise and activity accessible to all kids and not justtop athletes.
Our popular mountain biking trips ended up leading to our launch of a successful youth triathlon event that still continues today, which then led to our Fit Family Triathlon Program. One of the things I love the most is dispelling myths that the kids I work with are “lazy” or “un-athletic.” Through our programs all of us (staff, kids and parents) discover what the youths’ talents are and encourage a love of activity that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Swimming, biking, running/walking and playing games are just a few ways to figure out what they like. We have a registered dietitian who helps us address the nutrition portion of things. None of us believe in diets, but we believe in healthy balanced meals and occasional treats. It’s a simple process that can be challenging to implement due to a variety of factors that are addressed in our programs.
I have asked the person who wrote to me if it’s okay to share his email so that I don’t do him any injustice by trying to summarize it. He has graciously agreed and I thank him for even opening up this discussion on-line. If you have any constructive thoughts or ideas to share please feel free to do so.
Thanks so much,
Update on 2013-04-24 01:55 by Cory Nyamora
Here’s the email I received:
To be frank with you, the reason I unsubscribed from your e-mails is because I find the premise of your work around "ending childhood obesity" to be troubling, offensive and potentially detrimental to kids. I am certain that's not your intention, but I fear that is likely the impact of your work in the area of kid's health, because of the way you frame it. Though I am not an expert around fitness and we don't know each other well, I hope you won't consider this too forward and will hear out my concerns.
You're certainly not alone in your framework -- the idea of the "obesity epidemic" is currently widespread. I believe that all people who talk about health by focusing on size rather than behaviors are unfortunately causing harm. I'm a thin person, and I've been thin all my life. I have a number of friends who are fat, and who have reclaimed that word as a descriptive, rather than negative term. I've learned a lot from friends of mine who are fat activists. Just as I have privilege as a white person and as a man, I definitely have privilege as a person who has always been thin. I strive to be an ally to fat people in my life, because I believe fatphobia is a serious form of prejudice. And I believe fatphobia hurts not only fat people, but those of us who aren't fat, because we police ourselves for fear of ever becoming fat, sometimes to the point of eating disorders.
Because of what I've learned from my friends and from things I've read by fat activists, I have trouble with "weight loss" and "ending obesity" frameworks, especially having to do with children. I believe deeply that people can be healthy at every size, and that it's our behavior, not our weight, that determines our health. So the focus on health, especially for kids, should be not about losing weight, but about exercising and feeling good in their bodies, respecting the wide diversity of sizes that people's bodies come in. I believe in fighting not fatness, but the prejudice of fatphobia, as we also focus on helping all people -- not just fat people -- eat more healthily and exercise more regularly. I've been very influenced in my thinking by the "health at every size" framework and the book of the same name by Linda Bacon, as well as the Fat Studies Reader that came out recently. Here are some links to what I'm talking about. If you are not familiar, I really encourage you to check them out.
Thanks for taking the time to hear me out, Cory. I know that you care deeply about kids, health, and fitness, and it's my hope that these people's words will be helpful for you in your work.
Update on 2013-04-24 01:55 by Cory Nyamora
Here’s my response:
“Thanks so much for your email and the feedback. I'll try and write just a little here though I'm aware of the possibility of miscommunication about such an intense topic. I definitely am glad you said something but I can't deny that it struck a chord with me emotionally because of the complexity of this work and the issues you brought up. I don't take lightly what you've written and I've spent more hours than you'd like to know thinking about this issue. I’m glad that you've helped me begin to really articulate, in writing, some of the challenges with doing this work. And I appreciate that you are an ally to many people - it's difficult for many of us to speak up.
I understand how triggering talking about childhood obesity can be. I think we actually have a lot of similarities in our perspective and one of the challenges I've had these past few years is addressing all the things you talk about in an outreach/marketing way. Language is challenging around this and even talking about it is challenging. The language I use is actually the language of many of the parents and kids who do come to see me and the language that is used by most people searching for solutions to this majorly complex medical and psychosocial issue. It’s also a way that medical providers can find us.
Our focus is on health. The kids I see have pretty serious medical problems that according to the literature, medical research and what I have learned are significantly linked to their weight, eating and exercise habits. They generally have to do something and are at a crisis point when they come to us. One of the challenges is that they are generally pretty scarred from the stuff you are talking about and we do work with them on issues around confidence, discrimination, social pressures to be thin, eating disorders and so on. At the same time, we work with parents on how to minimize the harm that is occurring and has occurred to their children and how to deal with the larger society and having to be in a program like ours especially if they are worried about the stigmas that may be associated with it all. We talk about it and work with people where they are. Many people just want help getting healthier and reducing some of the illnesses, which are significantly impacting many of our kids.
I agree with you totally that all kids should be exercising and feeling good about their bodies regardless of size. One major obstacle in the culture is that most of the kids we see aren't able to do this because of so many messed up things about how several PE and sports programs are set up. Additionally, the shame and discrimination towards them is huge. The kids who work with us love having a space where they are not shamed and don't have to compete with kids who are in better shape or coaches who don't get it. One of our missions is to provide more education to coaches and schools about having more inclusive programs so that what you described can happen on a larger scale.
I have conflict around this work because of many of the reasons you talk about. I definitely see the value and love what I do with the kids and families we work with, and I also don't want to be part of a problem or stigmatizing others. I have thought deeply about and worked on the complexities, contradictions, sensitivities, social implications and the privileges that come up in this work. I however also spend a lot of my time seeing hundreds of kids and families who are really struggling and need help. At this stage they are not just worried about being called overweight or obese. Many of the young people are not at a place to reclaim “fat” in a positive way. They are worried about several things including: not being able to move easily, not enjoying time with their friends, being teased, not having access to healthy nutrition, dealing with diabetes for the rest of their lives, menstruating early, sleep apnea, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, not to mention all the psychological and social discrimination issues. I can go on forever about the issues they face.
I think helping these kids is a multilayered thing with many obstacles and intricacies that I continue to learn about every day from the youth and families I see (plus adults who've been through some of the trauma you are talking about and who come and see me because they are struggling to have a positive experience with themselves and their bodies yet at the same time "lose weight" in a healthy life affirming way that has nothing to do with just being thin). We work closely with parents on all these issues.
Your email is a wonderful reminder that some people may be caused harm by the language and may be turned off by it. But the language and marketing is also a way that people who need the services find us. My continuous challenge will be to see if there is a better way to reach people with other language, or better yet, be able to acknowledge the imperfection of it all and keep trying to make whatever changes need to happen. In fact if you know skilled and successful marketing folks who need a consulting gig send them my way.
One issue I have with some of the stuff around this issue is that people get polarized…you either believe childhood obesity is an issue or you don't. You believe that medical research is flawed or it's not. I think that's problematic because I have never found it that simple. The families we see clearly need help. As a person with all the labels that I carry, I've thought a lot about oppression and privilege and I see who is impacted by the health problems you are discussing. I haven't really addressed the economic, food access, nutrition information issues that we work on all the time (that may be another blog). I'm very aware of my athleticism and have used this privilege to work with the people I work with. I am against fat phobia and against people thinking that the only thing that matters is size. People who are healthy at their size don't need our “Fit Family Triathlon Program” (/triathlon-home-page/) or the “How to Help Your Child Lose Weight” Product (/how-to-help-your-child-lose/) and if they show up for them, we will connect them with more appropriate programs.
I really welcome you or your friends to come by and see the work we do and talk to the kids and families or better yet, check out the product we have for parents and see what you think (http://www.endurancecenter.org/how-to-help-your-child-lose/). We may need to do a better job at reflecting some of what I'm saying above in language, marketing and outreach. Or I may have to continue to ponder and question this issue and sit with the discomfort and imperfection of it all as I continue to work with the kids and families who need our services.
Thanks again and sorry this couldn't be shorter. It’s obviously a charged topic for many of us and difficult to summarize quickly. I'm happy to have a follow up conversation if you'd like.
Thanks for the links you provided. I'm aware of these resources and as I go forward I will consider having a resource page on my website. We currently provide resources to folks in our programs or people who need something we don't offer.
Thanks so much,