We're all doing our best to raise healthy kids, ensuring they eat well and stay active. Now imagine you receive a letter from the school informing you that your child is obese and you've been reported to social services. You'll be sent to counselling and your fat-shamed kid will have to go on a diet. Oh and, by the way, you'll probably get fined, too.
Sounds extreme, but it's a reality that parents in Puerto Rico may face if a controversial bill tabled last week becomes law. According to a statement released by Senator Gilberto Rodriguez, the bill aims to improve children's well being and help parents make healthier choices. More than 28 percent of young children in Puerto Rico have been defined as being obese.
If the bill is approved, teachers would be responsible for screening children, presumably by using Body Mass Index to identify obese children. From there, parents would be referred to officials within Puerto Rico's Health Department to determine the cause of the child's obesity. If poor eating and lack of exercise habits are considered to be the culprit, families will be told to put their child on a diet and exercise routine, which would be monitored each month. If improvements (read: losing weight) are not made within six months to a year, parents would be fined between $500 and $800 dollars.
Legal and health experts have come out against the bill, calling it incorrect and superficial. The president of the Puerto Rican chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Ricardo Fontanet, said in an interview with El Neuvo Dia some "kids are obese because of medical complications or genetic issues," and this type of initiative "will complicate things."
News of the proposed bill comes on the heels of commentary from leading obesity researchers that diet and exercise may not be enough for overweight people to lose weight and keep it off. Christopher Ochner, a weight management doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital, expressed his views about the stigma surrounding obesity last week in the medical journal The Lancet. "What really bothers me working around and with clinicians, is that some of them—a disturbing percentage—still believe it's all about personal choice: that if the patient just tries hard enough, and if we can just figure out how to get them a little more motivated, then we'd be successful. And that's just not right."
While Ocnher was commenting on the attitudes of doctors, the same could be said of politicians like Senator Rodriguez. I'm sure he believes his fat shaming bill will inspire kids and parents to want to lose weight. But for any parent who has struggled with their own weight issues, or who has been told by doctors that their children are overweight, I'm equally sure that being policed and fined by the government for failing to meet BMI guidelines is the last thing that will motivate them. Especially if a medical condition or lack of access to healthy foods is the underlying factor for their obesity.
I don't have the solution for what has been called an obesity epidemic, but I do believe that fat shaming is not the answer.