Bullying the obese carries no weight

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Fat and dead at three, screamed the headlines. A tragically young victim of the obesity epidemic in which children are "choking on their own fat"? Well, no. The toddler, whose death featured in a report to MPs on the health select committee, we now know suffered from a genetic disorder which left her feeling permanently famished. Whatever she was fed, her body told her brain she was near starvation, so, as all babies do, she screamed for food. Where were the health professionals as her family struggled to cope with a constantly wailing child who in three years had reached the average weight of an 11-year-old? Probably dismissing her parents as too weak, giving in too easily to an attention-seeking child who should be left to cry. She died of heart failure before her medical condition had been diagnosed.

So this young girl and her grief-stricken family were not so much victims of obesity, but of state-sponsored bullies who have been given licence to leap to derogatory conclusions about "fat" children all in the name of saving the nation from itself.

The toddler is obviously a very extreme case, but as the Government trumpets its war against obesity, how many more thousands of children are suffering at the hands of adults and classmates, because they are carrying "too much" weight. In an age when racism, sexism and ageism are all officially frowned upon, how have we allowed "obese" to become a term of abuse? If every news bulletin carries a feature on how a generation of feckless, coddling parents have produced idle, over-eating offspring who should just get off their bottoms, why shouldn't children join in the fun?

Being fat has always been a "reason" for being bullied, but what do teachers now say to stop playground taunting, when the bullies are just repeating what they heard on TV the night before?

What ministers and health officials appear to have forgotten is that beneath the layers of fat there are vulnerable, confused children. Children who live in high-rise estates, whose parents are too frightened to let them out to play, have no money to pay for dance or swimming classes and over-compensate with videos, bottles of pop and bags of crisps, because we all like to see our kids smile.

They appear to also have forgotten the growing rates of anorexia and bulimia that blight the lives of thousands of teenagers obsessed with body image and wracked by low self-esteem. How will they be persuaded that a more rounded figure can be just as attractive?

Like other major health scares that have verged on moral panic - Aids, smoking, binge-drinking - the tone taken is hectoring and bullying. Yet this campaign is aimed at children and their parents who not only need to know what they ought to be doing, but how the powers-that-be are going to make it possible.

The sort of advice that can be found in The TES's Get Active campaign is concrete and offers, for the most part, positive images of what can be achieved - how schools can make a difference. But children spend the majority of their lives outside the school gates.

If any of their nagging is to make a difference, the authorities need to help children walk to school by cutting the number of cars on the road, allow teachers the time to teach PE lessons that are fun and leave pupils breathless for more than a few minutes at a time. Provide playgrounds that are safe and not dropping grounds for needles and used condoms. Give teenagers something else to do in the evenings other than sit in front of a screen.

Stop bullying and give children back their self-respect and the means to really make a difference to their lifestyles. Do ministers believe that some children choose not to be slim and active? They live that way because neither they nor their parents know any different, or don't care because they cannot see beyond how miserable their lives would be without their excessive creature comforts.

Families need support and a reason to look to the future. They need the Government to provide real solutions to their very real problems that go far beyond their weight. Bullying and lecturing is not enough.

Libby Purves 32

Alison Shepherd is chair of governors at a north-east London primary school.

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