Discussing Daughters' Weight Not The Best Way To Encourage Healthy Eating

Last week, Michelle Obama began discussion of her anti-obesity initiative by recalling a time when her own daughters' weight was "off balance." It's not the first time the Obamas have mentioned their kids' weight, and it's drawing widespread criticism.

Michelle Obama appeared along with Regina Benjamin — whose own weight has been exhaustively scrutinized by the press — at the January 29 launch of her campaign against childhood obesity. According to Tim Reid of the Times of London (the British press appears to have covered the event better than the Americans), Mrs. Obama kicked off the campaign by "discussing a warning from the First Family's doctor that her own daughters were becoming overweight." She said, "In my eyes I thought my children were perfect [...] I didn't see the changes." She added that Sasha and Malia's doctor "cautioned me that I had to look at my children's BMI" and that "he was concerned that something was getting off balance."

As Reid points out, Barack Obama mentioned in a 2008 interview with Parents magazine that, "a couple of years ago - you'd never know it by looking at her now - Malia was getting a little chubby." The Obamas said they reduced their kids' intake of sugary drinks, burgers, and TV, and the effect "was so significant that the next time we visited our paediatrician he was amazed." In fact, these lifestyle changes have apparently become something of a talking point for Michelle Obama as she launches her new campaign. Announcing the initiative on January 20, she said,

I wasn't always aware of how all the calories and fat in some of the processed foods I was buying were adding up. It got to the point where our pediatrician had to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'You know, you might want to consider making some changes in your family's diet.'

Michelle Obama's comments on the 29th appear to have directed renewed attention to the Obamas' discussions of their daughters' weight. Today on Strollerderby, sandymaple wrote,

The last thing a young girl wants to believe is that the most important man in her life finds her somehow less than perfect. Which is why I cringed when I read where President Barack Obama referred to his own daughter Malia as "chubby." How did she feel to realize that the most important man in her life found fault with her appearance and then told the whole world about it?

And Jeanne Sager wrote, also on Strollerderby,

Their mother is trying for the greater good, but she's taken an extremely touchy subject out into the open. On the brink of teenagehood, Malia Obama is at an especially precarious position. With a naturally changing body, the idea that she has to face the world debating her fat puts her at higher risk for an eating disorder. And let's not forget what she looks like - tall and svelte, like her mother, she is a gorgeous girl but I dare say she's on the thin side.

Considering the disgusting things said about a teenaged Chelsea Clinton during her father's presidency - when no one was actively discussing her body - what does this sort of public attention do a tween? And what greater good does it really serve for Mrs. Obama to be talking about her kids' struggle with weight?

And Michelle Malkin, not missing a chance to criticize the Obamas, asks, "Hey, whatever happened to leaving the Obama girls alone?" In this case, her criticism may be appropriate. Obesity disproportionately affects poor children, and Michelle Obama may want to emphasize but she's not looking down on them by revealing that her children have had weight issues too. But in doing so she's exposing her children to scrutiny at an early age, and perhaps promulgating an unrealistic idea of what kids' bodies should look like. While she portrays Sasha and Malia's weight "problem" as a thing of the past, they're now quite thin, and suggesting that they narrowly missed becoming overweight does seem to mark out a relatively small range of acceptable sizes for kids.

Michelle's mention of Sasha and Malia's BMI may also hint at a deeper problem with the anti-obesity campaign — a focus on children's weight rather than their health. Rachel of The F-Word says, "it strikes me odd that these so-called health concerns and nutrition advice did not arise until OMG, MALIA IS GETTING FAT!! If you eat a steady diet of fast-, junk- and processed foods and yet are genetically blessed to remain thin, does this mean you're healthy?" As Rachel notes, Michelle Obama is encouraging healthy eating and exercise, which is laudable, but she might also consider "convincing her husband and Congress to make changes in the Farm Bill to help eliminate food deserts and subsidize locally-grown fruits and vegetables so that they are both more affordable and accessible to people at all socio-economic levels." These public-policy initiatives would likely do more to make the American people healthy than undue focus on BMI — Sasha's, Malia's, or anyone else's.

Michelle Obama Unveils Campaign Against Childhood Obesity With Help Of Daughters [TimesOnline]
Michelle Obama To Launch Initiative Fighting Child Obesity [USA Today]
Dads, Daughters And Diets: Obama's Mistake [Strollerderby]
First Lady Drags Daughters Into Obesity Campaign [Michelle Malkin]
Should Michelle Obama Talk About Girls' Brush With Fat? [Strollerderby]

Related: And It Begins… Obama Girls' Diets, Weight Make National News [The F-Word]
First Lady Promotes Healthy Living [ABC]