By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
As a pediatrician, Dr. Eric Yancy understands the seriousness of childhood obesity.
As a person who has struggled with his own weight for most of his life, he also understands the disservice we do to children when we focus on weight alone.
“Children matter beyond their size!” the Riley Children’s Health physician wrote in a Facebook essay, prompted by a conversation he recalled with a mom whose child was overweight.
“I see overweight kids every day, but the whole conversation was about her weight,” he said when asked why he felt compelled to write what he did.
“What else is this child besides her weight,” he asked. “If that’s all you’re going to focus on and the child is deemed otherwise worthless, then why would the child have any impetus to do anything different?”
Nearly 30% of kids in Indiana are considered overweight or obese, so it’s not something to ignore. And Dr. Yancy is not suggesting that. Rather, he wants to shine a light on the inherent value of all children, regardless of size.
HE HEARD THE SNICKERING
“Suppose you wake up one day and you find that you are a little fat kid. You don’t realize it then, but you are about to become one of the most bullied children in your whole school,” he writes in the essay. “In playground games you will be picked last, and the team captains will argue about who has to take you. At the movies the kid that looks like you will never be the hero. Adults and even teachers didn’t realize you heard them laughing when you took the fitness test. Then imagine that they blame it on YOU.”
Dr. Yancy acknowledges speaking from experience. Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., he remembers the snickers from teachers and the teasing from other kids.
“When I was growing up, it was only one or two kids in the class (who were overweight). But I was one of those,” he said.
“Does anybody see you for what your value is?”
Lucky for him, he had other things going for him that allowed him to stand out beyond his size. He was an excellent student and a talented singer, and he loved to perform on stage.
He did, however, get tired of being asked to play roly-poly characters like Santa Claus.
He also had a family that supported him always.
Still, how did he get past the hurt as a child?
“I don’t think I did. I don’t think I totally did,” he said. “I still deal with some of that today, some of those feelings. I didn’t get too depressed because I had other things going for me, but it didn’t really take away the sting of people laughing at you.”
Dr. Yancy says he came out of the experience pretty well, but a lot of kids don’t.
“It’s not reasonable to harp only on what you consider a child’s shortcomings when in almost every instance they had nothing to do with it. The kids can’t go buy the food, and the kids can’t prepare the food. Sometimes the parents can’t buy the healthy food because they’re in food deserts.”
Kids who look in the mirror and see only what others say is wrong with them feel powerless, which can lead to depression, self-harm and other serious mental health issues.
“We many times fail to see the child. We only see the weight.”
“FIND THE PRECIOUS DIAMOND”
That’s why Dr. Yancy counsels his patients and parents on healthy eating and exercise habits, but also encourages them to focus on the wonder of who they are – maybe they are a talented artist or they love music, he said. Build on that connection so a child knows he or she is more than their size.
“Find the precious diamond hidden inside the oversized box. Let them sparkle, because THAT is where the true value lies!”
The husband and father of three grown kids still remembers the hurtful words from so long ago, and he wants to spare today’s children from some of that pain. Not by ignoring what can be a serious health challenge, but by validating the child’s worth in other ways.
“People mean well, but I think what they miss is if every effort is geared toward changing you, then by default you have said I’m not good enough.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t do things to help, but you have to keep in mind that this person is first a child so their weight problem is not what should define them. Their inner child should define them. And I think that’s what a lot of people miss.”