The onward march of the Obesity Orwellians

When kids are snatched from their parents simply for being too fat, it’s clearly the expansion of the state, not our waistlines, that is out of control.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

‘Parents of seven told: your children are too fat, so you will never see them again.’ So declared the Daily Mail on Monday. And this case is by no means the first one in which children’s excess weight has been used to justify taking them from their parents. Nor is this the only way in which the issue of obesity is being used to intervene in the lives of families today.

The family who featured in the Daily Mail story, who cannot be named for legal reasons, first came to prominence in 2008 when the first threats were made to take their children into care. The parents had actually approached social services themselves, because one of their children had developmental problems. However, the social workers soon focused on their weight. The mother, in her forties, weighed 23 stone, while the father, in his fifties, weighed 18 stone. In 2008, their 12-year-old son weighed 16 stone, his 11-year-old sister weighed 12 stone, and a three-year-old girl weighed four stone.

After being given three months to bring their children’s weights down, to no avail, the family was moved into a two-bedroom ‘Big Brother’-style house where only three of the children were allowed to stay at any one time and their mealtimes were constantly monitored. All seven children were taken into care in 2009 and now it has been revealed that some of the children will be permanently taken out of contact with their parents through fostering or adoption.

There is no doubt that there are other problems in this family besides obesity. However, these are very far from neglected or abused children. This would seem to be a loving family suffering from some difficulties relating to one another. The council has consistently argued that it would not have intervened in the way it did on the grounds of obesity alone. However, it is quite clear that the draconian manner in which the family has been treated is to a significant extent based on concerns about the children’s weights.

While such cases are still unusual, this is not an isolated incident. In 2004, the parents of a nine-year-old girl in Derbyshire were threatened with having her removed due to her weight. In 2007, Newcastle social services made a similar threat in relation to an eight-year-old boy, Connor McCreaddie. In 2008, UK council bosses declared that very fat children should be monitored and taken away from their parents if necessary.

It should be blindingly obvious to medics and social workers that children simply cannot become as fat as these children without some significant genetic predisposition towards piling on the pounds. The drastic act of taking a child from his or her parents should only ever happen when there is clear evidence of serious neglect or abuse. Yet in the cases of many of these fat children, there is little or no evidence of any such neglect or abuse. Instead, obesity itself is taken to be sufficient basis for extreme state action.

The case of Anamarie Regino, a three-year-old girl from New Mexico in the US is instructive in this regard. As Paul Campos relates in his book, The Obesity Myth, Anamarie was taken from her home because it was assumed that her extreme obesity must have been the fault of her parents. Her mother was accused, without evidence, of force-feeding her. However, because Anamarie did show signs of losing weight, she was allowed to return to her parents. Six years later, in 2010, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Anamarie is still struggling with her weight. By then aged 12, standing five feet three inches tall and weighing over 300 pounds, Anamarie had a body mass index (BMI) of around 55. Doctors have still not been able to explain why she is so large.

How taking children like Anamarie, Connor and the Dundee kids away from good homes could ever be seen to help them is a mystery. As Campos writes in relation to Anamarie, the case says ‘a great deal about the hysteria that fat elicits among so many doctors, social workers and other members of helping professions’. The sickness here is not with the children or the parents; rather, it is the hysteria about obesity among social workers, medics and council chiefs that needs treatment.

This obesity hysteria is a sickness that increasingly infects relations between the state, parents and children at many levels. For example, it is now standard practice to weigh children at school and to send letters home to parents. Last week, the Daily Mail reported on an 11-year-old boy whose parents were told by his school that he was considered clinically obese. The fact that boy in question takes part in three different sports clubs and has completed an amateur triathlon suggests he might actually be quite healthy.

Then there is the ongoing lunacy around school meals, sparked by Jamie Oliver’s crusades on both side of the Atlantic and the belief that burgers, fries and turkey twizzlers are killing our kids. When parents understandably reacted against these apparently lethal meals by giving their children packed lunches, the result was to turn teachers into snoops inspecting lunchboxes.

The school curriculum now seems to be obsessed with healthy eating and exercise, to the detriment of good education. Children have it drilled into them that they should be fretting about food and bodyweight constantly. Children with a bit of a podge are now led to believe that they could grow up to be sickly, miserable, unlovable specimens for whom the clock will be constantly ticking towards an inevitable early death.

All this from an overreaction to normal variations in body shape combined with the authorities’ determination to persuade us that we are all vulnerable and in constant need of their protection – even from our own loving parents. On this flimsy basis, families are at best being guilt-tripped about what they eat and how they raise their children, and at worst are being torn asunder. It’s not our expanding waistlines but the ever-expanding state that we should really be worried about.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics