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A Child's Heavy Burden

Childhood is hard enough. Add obesity, and it can be traumatic. And the effects can last a lifetime: A new study reiterates that many obese adults were obese kids.

March 12, 1997|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elaine sits in a tiny room of the nurse's office at her Los Angeles high school, staring through crooked Venetian blinds at the dark, rain-filled sky. At 14, she is severely obese, plagued by joint pain and fatigue that have caused her to miss classes this year. But her physical ailments pale in comparison to the emotional turmoil she endures.

"It's very depressing when you're fat because you look at yourself every day, you look at your pants size and say, 'Oh, my goodness! That's me?' And you feel like you don't want to live anymore. Sometimes people don't understand that even just calling somebody a name would make them want to kill themselves--like when somebody you look up to says, 'Dang, you're fat! You need to lose weight.' "

Heavy most of her life, Elaine (who, like other overweight teens in this story, asked that her real name not be used) endures taunts from classmates, occasional nagging from her parents and little understanding from P.E. teachers who she says deride her for not being able to keep up with others.

Although Elaine is surrounded by friends who accept her as she is, she is not at peace with herself.

"Some kids will say, 'Look at that gorda,' and I know that means 'fat.' I'm the only one sitting here that's fat. . . . And then you feel like you want to attack them or something, beat them up. . . . I guess they do it because they're bored or they're heartless; they don't care how other people feel. [Sometimes] I confront them and I'd get all pissed off, and they'd end up saying, 'Sorry, sorry.' "

School counselors and nurses have recommended structured diet programs and clinics, but nothing so far has worked. There are daily temptations from fast-food restaurants just a minute's walk from the school--McDonald's, Burger King, Carl's Jr.

Elaine's painful struggles with her weight are not unique. America's youth are getting heavier. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reiterated the dangerous connection--that America's children continue to be overweight; overweight children tend to be overweight as adults; and that overweight adults are at increased risk for morbidity and mortality.

The population in general is gaining weight, so if parents aren't watching what they eat, they're obviously not paying much attention to what their children are consuming.

Easy access to fast foods and easy-to-prepare grocery store items laden with fat make it that much easier to pack on the pounds. More time in front of the television and computer means less time outside playing and getting exercise.

But studies and statistics tell only part of the story.

Being overweight is difficult at any age, but childhood is fraught with its own perils. Relentless teasing by schoolmates leave scars that can last a lifetime. Parents' reasoning that obesity is just baby fat that the child will outgrow is ignoring the severity and complexity of the problem.

Kids can withdraw, isolate themselves, their emotional wounds becoming deeper and deeper. Amid the teasing, the nagging and the name-calling, their voices are almost lost. Last year an overweight 12-year-old boy in Florida hanged himself, apparently distraught over being taunted by classmates.

*

Talking about sports makes 15-year-old Roberto's face break into a wide grin.

"I love sports," he says. "Football, tae kwon do, many sports. My favorite is swimming."

He'd like people to know that, because "there are some who don't understand me because they see me as a defect," says Roberto, who stands about 5 feet, 9 inches and weighs 257 pounds. "Some people call me names, like 'pig' or 'fat burger.' I only listen and say, 'Oh, I don't care.' But I do care."

This 10th-grader, who has grown up in Central America and Los Angeles, has been heavy nearly all his life. He's endured cruel taunts in two countries, but finds his weight to be more of an issue in Central America.

"There, there aren't as many overweight people," he says in Spanish through a translator, "so they look at me the way somebody here in the United States would look at someone who weighs 600 or 700 pounds."

And it doesn't help that the rest of his family is average weight, except for one grandfather.

"My family keeps pushing me to eat less and less, but I find that really hard," Roberto explains, especially when he is relegated to special meals while everyone else eats whatever they want. "They don't understand how difficult it is for me."

Diets for the most part have failed. A few years ago he lost 50 pounds on one program that featured prepackaged food. But when he went off the program, the weight came back.

He empathizes with children fed large amounts of high-fat foods by their parents, saying, "Whenever I see parents with their children, I try to tell them not to give them a lot of fat, and don't make them eat a lot and be overweight, because then the child will grow up and say, 'Why did you do this to me?' "

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