Junkfood Science: Follow-up and some balance on the young boy in England

February 28, 2007

Follow-up and some balance on the young boy in England

Government authorities are allowing the eight-year old boy in North Tyneside, discussed here, to remain with his family under undisclosed terms.

While no one actually knows the real story here, many believe they do, based on the media’s presentation. This story has tragically brought out misinformed viewpoints about the causes for extremes of size in children and scares about obesity. But the most extreme thing about this situation isn’t the child’s unusually large size, but the extreme examples of fat prejudice that have surfaced, none worse than that illustrated in the language used by one columnist in Britain who actually published this about the boy:

He has a sweet face and endearing smile but it's impossible to look at his young bloated body without feeling both revulsion and pity. Revulsion because, like Monty Python's blubbery Mr Creosote, you wonder how many more calories it will take before he explodes.... it's obvious the fat police have a mountain of lard to climb if they hope to prevent a health timebomb. And as a symbol of our times you couldn't find a sadder example of a doomed child heading into a future blighted by heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure...

The media was quick to point blame at this mother, upon noting that they caught him eating 4 handfuls of chips and 3 cookies a day they watched him, he doesn’t like fruits and vegetables but does like hotdogs and potatoes, and the family eats “processed” foods and used to eat take-out twice a week. None of this is unlike plenty of families of thin children. It is not uncommon for parents to worry that their kids will only eat "white" foods like macaroni, breads and sweets, and for rapidly growing children to seem hungry all the time to their parents. Moreso, as medical research has shown, when their eating is restricted by adults hoping to make them smaller. But we really don't know the child's actual diet, only the media's interpretation of his "bad" diet.

While many are quick to jump to conclusions that fat children must have eating disorders and can’t “really be hungry” because they’re so large, the fact is that is very rarely the case. And to point to “overeating” especially in this situation, makes no genetic sense at all. “Overeating” might make a child several pounds larger, but as medical professionals know, it’s biologically impossible for food alone to make a young 8-year old child an extraordinary foot taller and larger than his peers.

One media report noted that he'd gone through five bicycles, so this would not appear an unusually sedentary child. And it is impossible to accurately interpret the fact he drags himself to school oftentimes late, as reported by another media story.

There are also no indications from the news stories that, as some have suggested, he has Prader-Willi syndrome, characterized by short stature, small hands and feet, and retardation.

Maybe this is a child with some medical explanation for his extreme height and size. We don't have the facts to know. But just as possible, he’s another example of children like Anamarie or Dakota for whom there are no medical explanations or indications of parental abuse/neglect but simply examples of variations of size at the extreme end. As one obesity author described him, he is built like a future linebacker.

The one thing we do know is that this extreme example is being exploited and held up to illustrate and exaggerate childhood obesity...at the detriment of this child and his family and all fat children, and at the expense of accurate portrayals about children’s natural diversity of sizes.

ABC News this morning showed him jumping on his trampoline and playing like any other kid but eagerly made him a headlining story about parental abuse. Of all the articles in media around the world, only one unnamed editorial today looked at the adults in this situation and commented on them using this situation to create a TV show. The points are worthy of inclusion in this controversy:

TV made a freak show out of Connor‘s misery

Just who is most guilty of abusing eight-year-old Connor McCreaddie?... Frankly, the documentary on poor Connor was a shameful piece of filming. Presenter Fiona Foster’s finger-wagging prurience struck me as a sham. How could anyone with Connor’s real interests at heart have exposed him to national shame and ridicule? Just what sort of reaction will Connor now be getting at school or in his local neighbourhood? Don’t the programme makers have a clue how cruel other children can be or do they simply not care?

We protect children in our courtrooms but are quite prepared to throw them to the television wolves whose only real concern is to achieve good ratings. Was it really necessary to film Connor sitting in his underpants with his rolls of flab hanging over in folds? Exactly what justified such an intrusion? We worry our socks off about paedophilia yet it is OK to strip a child almost naked on national television in order to mock his body.

This quasi-documentary was a clear case of child exploitation....Were all these professionals happy to go along with exposing Connor’s problems to a national audience? Consultant paediatrician Dr Michael Markiewicz, an expert on childhood obesity, told the programme makers that the family’s treatment of Connor amounts to child abuse, however unintentional it is. “They love him, but they actually love him to death. The way they are treating him and feeding him, they are slowly killing him.” ... whatever happened to the idea of medical confidentiality? What chance has poor Connor when even his doctors think it is perfectly OK to discuss his case on national television?

The whole programme was repellent; a skin-crawling experience. Poor Connor and his family were treated like modern freaks by the tut-tutting, skinny, London-based presenter....

A few years ago, when a nine year old girl in Derbyshire County was threatened to be removed from her parents because she weighed more than 13 stone, Spiked-online published an article by Paul Campos who described Anamarie, a fat child removed from her parents in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Its balance is critically important to read again today:

The lock-up diet

...The story of what was done to a child and her parents by an assortment of doctors, social workers, and government bureaucrats is a chilling tale of what can happen when people of modest means and social status find themselves, through no fault of their own, facing the full brunt of the prejudice that fuels the war on fat.

Anamarie - who weighed six pounds, 13 ounces at birth - gained 32 pounds in her first eight months of life. Her mother, Adela Martinez-Regino, realised from the beginning that there was something different about her daughter. 'She was drinking 10 and 12 bottles a day and still wanting more', she says. So Martinez-Regino...started taking her daughter to doctors, in what became an increasingly desperate attempt to determine why her daughter was so large. (Besides her weight, Anamarie soon grew to be nearly twice as tall as other children her age, and developed a full set of teeth by the time she was a year old.)

Over the next few months, a parade of paediatricians, endocrinologists, and specialists in rare childhood syndromes examined Anamarie. None of them was able to successfully diagnose her condition. By the time the girl was 16 months old, her mother had taken Anamarie to 57 doctors' appointments, yet her condition remained as mysterious as ever. And still, Anamarie continued to grow at a remarkable rate: she weighed 67 pounds at 16 months, 97 pounds at 28 months, and 130 pounds by July of 2000, when she was little more than three years old....

What Anamarie's mother didn't know was that the state's Child, Youth and Families Department was already preparing an affidavit that would accuse her and her husband, Miguel Regino, of endangering their child's life by making her fat. According to the social workers who filed this document, Anamarie would 'surely die' if she was not placed immediately on a rigid diet and exercise programme. This, the social workers said, was 'something which the parents have not been willing or able to do'....

The next few days were a nightmare for Anamarie's parents....Martinez-Regino's description of the final scene would chill the blood of any parent....

Although no medical problems were ever found in this young girl despite the claims of authorities that she was in immediate medical danger, she was placed in state custody and put on a 500-calorie a day starvation diet and intense exercise program and continued to grow larger. As Campos noted, “it should be unnecessary to point out that the whole idea that parental dietary practices might play a significant role in producing a 130-pound three-year-old is absurd.” Understanding the genetic regulation of our size, one would know that it is impossible to force feed a toddler to make him/her 90 pounds more than an average 3 year old, he said.

Another disconcerting parallel between these stories was noted in another observation from Campos:

Anamarie's story illustrates the intimate relationship between, on the one hand, slenderness and power, privilege, and money, and on the other, fat and powerlessness, lack of social status, and relative poverty....

We live in a nation in which those in authority can look at a three-year-old girl with the 'wrong' sort of body and decide, on the basis of nothing more than irrational beliefs born of their own fear and loathing of fat, that her family must be torn apart.

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