The first time my daughter grabbed a box of cookies out of the pantry, flipped the package round and round, and asked me how many calories were in each one, I laughed it off.
"I don't know," I said. "Why do you ask?"
The second time she asked—while reaching for another square of our regular Friday night pizza—an alarm went off. This time she added, "I don't want to get fat. That's bad."
Even as I told her that she didn't need to pay any attention to calories, that they were good things, that we needed them for energy to run and play, I seethed. After all, I had a new enemy: whoever had introduced this calorie nonsense into my home and had made my healthy, vibrant 7-year-old worry about counting calories.
As it turns out, naming the enemy was more difficult than anticipated. Even as I read a horrifying (if overblown) story about the number of 5- to 7-year-olds who are being treated for eating disorders in the UK, I couldn't simply blame the media, Barbie, or the uber-retouched, sickly skinny celebs on magazine covers the way the Telegraph report did. After all, how could a thin woman in a magazine cause my daughter to dread getting fat?
But I was wrong. While loading food onto the conveyor at the grocery store, I saw her. On a magazine cover. In her pretty dress and sweet cardigan, ankles crossed ladylike on a picnic table set with apples in their summer glory.
I reached for the August issue of Better Homes and Gardens. "Fresh and Healthy: Michelle Obama," the cover read. At last I had found the culprit: one of the world's most beautiful, powerful, and intelligent women. Great.
If you don't know, Michelle Obama's major initiative during her husband's presidency has been the Let's Move campaign, which aims to end childhood obesity within a generation by encouraging healthier eating and activity "during their earliest months and years."
While well-intentioned to be sure, something about it strikes me as insidious.
Perhaps because even as Let's Move seeks to "raise a generation of healthier kids," it's a government program that targets kids: namely, fat ones. As the message of Let's Move and other programs like it has trickled down through layers of government bureaucracy into U.S. schools and schoolyards, the dangerous sides of its do-gooder message seep into our homes. It creates problems where there were once none.
My daughter now faces demons she shouldn't have to face. Not at age 7 at least. Instead of being able to shovel her Mac and Cheese, to slurp down a juice box with abandon before running back out to the swings, she now stops to consider the "costs."
Instead of greeting her food with gratitude, thanking God (or even me) for the energy it gives her to run outside and ride her scooter, she's asking questions about why fat people are so unhealthy. Why they are "bad."
Certainly 7-year-old girls asked their mothers about calories before anyone knew Michelle Obama's name, but programs like hers only validate all the retouched, dying-to-be thin images we see in visual media every day. It reinforces the wrong-headed belief that overweight people are less worthy, that their lives mean less than thin ones, that they should be eradicated for the public cost they create for the country.
As Paul Campos noted in the Daily Beast, "Fat kids have enough problems without government-approved pseudo-scientific garbage about how they could be thin if they just ate their vegetables and played outside more often."
Thin kids do too.
Don't get me wrong: I want both kids and parents to know where food comes from and to understand serving sizes. I want people to feel their hearts pound, their muscles burns when we engage in life that lifts us out of our desk chairs or off our sofas. I want people—children, especially—to be healthy and fit.
And I understand the dangers and complexity of childhood obesity. I just worry about the dangers presented in our desire to eradicate it. About what these efforts communicate to all kids, no matter their Body Mass Index. Specifically, I worry that kids understand that our fight against childhood obesity is less about being healthy and more about not being fat.
I worry, as a recent AP story warned, that we are making overweight kids even more of a social pariah than they already are. We are, after all, seeking to make them extinct. Looking at it this way, my daughter's newfound concern for calories makes perfect sense. It's simply self-preservation.
As a Christian, I certainly don't want my kids' response to food to be one of gluttony or comfort-seeking. But nor do I want food of any kind to be met with panic. I want my kids to care about their health, but not cross over into obsessive control over it. I don't want my 7-year-old daughter—who has a lifetime to fret over her figure—to start now. And I don't want anyone looking at overweight or obese kids as anything lesser, as people to be gotten rid of.
I want my kids to know that food is a gift. I want all our kids to be grateful to God and to parents for the provision they receive, even if it is at times less than perfectly healthy. And I want them to know that they are loved by a God whose body was broken for us: no matter how they look or what they weigh.