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Precious, the central character at the Oscar-winning movie by the same name, can be seen stealing a family-size bucket of fried chicken from a fast-food restaurant for breakfast. The chicken; greasy and sticky. She eats it, while running in a subsequent scene. She was indulged in stealing the food to satiate hunger because hunger and poverty are mutually inclusive. Like Precious, my friend John had struggled with obesity, hunger, poverty, bullying and stigma throughout his life.
John and I lived few blocks apart.
We were born and raised in the South Bronx. John had two siblings from a single mother who worked two jobs to provide for the family. We went to the nearby public school. John was 203 pounds at age 12 and struggled with his weight for years and years. John would express he would not like to go to school because kids teased and embarrassed him by calling names such as gorilla or chubby. He would cry when bullied or shamed because of his weight.
I tried to be on his side but was not sure what to do. I told his mother one day that John feels lonely and scared at school because some kids tease him for being overweight. All I heard from his mother was, “I will talk to the principal; I don’t have time right now, have to run for work.” John would hide his emotions and try to control his diet, but we had limited choices available to us. The meals provided at school had one choice or two choices the most.
It was choosing between pizza or ravioli, while most of the days just the deep-fired chicken with milk. The pocket money we had could only buy a soda can or a mini chocolate bar.
John is now in his mid-30’s weighing around 300 pounds. He still lives in the same apartment with his mother. I asked him about his childhood experience with bullying and teasing. He said, “it is hard not to feel demotivated, down, and emotionally abused when someone calls you with names because you do not look like them or because you are overweight or obese.” I encouraged him to share why had it been difficult for him to control his weight. He replied, “mom worked two jobs, she was barely home, and we barely had means to buy healthier food. I had to cook most of the times for all of us. I would make French fries, peanut butter sandwiches, pasta, rice, or just microwave the frozen pizza.” John now suffers from chronic stress, and has developed sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
John’s recount of childhood experiences reminded me of a New York Times article which stated childhood teasing experiences have long-lasting implication for health and health behavior.1 Inducing shame or name-calling only make people feel infirm about themselves, not motivated. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is critical of excess weight at the same time offer little or no choices instead reinforces indulgence by advertising unhealthy food. Childhood obesity is a complex issue; mixed with life’s circumstances, socioeconomic status, free will, genetics, sedentary lifestyle, a great deal of promotion and advertisement for fast food, sugary drinks, and high-caloric junk food. It will take public, politicians, advocacy groups, and health policy attacking the variables that contribute to childhood obesity. If society wants its children and communities to engage in health-promoting behaviors, it will have to consider childhood obesity a social, environmental and economic issue.
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