There is no other way to put it. Forcing exercise and diets on your children is an attempt to punish them for their (perceived) fatness and that is abuse.
TW: this piece discusses anti-fatness, fat camps, diet & exercise, and familial/social child abuse. please proceed with caution.
I have been fat for as far back as my memory will allow me to reach. Before I even knew—or cared, for that matter—about the largeness of my body in comparison to others around me, others made clear to me that it was an issue. Not quite an issue for me, but an issue for how they perceived me. Left and right, day-in and day-out, people projected their hate for fatness onto my body.
I was picked on and bullied constantly in elementary school for my weight. I was a “hypersensitive” little fat boy who everyone saw as a target. Other than a few, even my “friends” treated me horribly for my size. I would pick on myself for not being able to do the pull-ups in PE before my PE teacher, or my peers, could. I would pretend that I was just apathetic about the mile run, and would walk it instead so that no one could make fun of the fat boy who tried hard to keep up with his thin peers and failed. Eventually, after I internalized all of this, it led to me being the angry fat Black boy who posed a threat to others. I started fighting a lot, being combative with my teachers, threatening my peers, and ultimately spending more time in suspension than I did in class. This would continue through middle school. There is a conversation there about anti-fat bullying as part of the school-to-prison pipeline, but that is a different conversation for a different piece.
What this all led back to, however, was people’s hate for my body. But I was a very active child, so I could not fathom the reasons for why anyone would loathe my body for something that I seemingly could not change.
When I was 4, my mom met my now-stepfather who also happened to be a coach of various sports. At a very early age, I played just about every sport imaginable. Football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf. If you name it, I have likely played it—even if it was not coached by him. And as anyone in the US public school system knows, in elementary school, they kept us very active; from field days, to PE tests, to a daily required recess. But because of my various illnesses, and the harm I was experiencing by my doctors, my mom worried. As any parent would, considering how scarce and new fat politics is—especially at that time. But the result of this panic was essentially an at-home fat camp.
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I was periodically put on crash diets and inadvertently judged, essentially, for eating. My mom used to put me in sweatsuits and wrap me in black trash bags, and have me run for miles. I was no older than 8. And I had asthma. But for miles, I ran. Sometimes she’d join me sans the trash bags and sweatsuits. At times, I would make it fun and pretend I was Missy Elliott from that infamous video, but most times I just felt defeated. As I have already written before, diets and diet culture are only successful at stealing out of the pockets of fat people and punishing us for our bodies. And running around my neighborhood in that uniform, for everyone to make a spectacle of my body, felt like I was being put on display at a zoo. And what once was my one escape from overwhelming fat hate became one of the sites of my most traumatic anti-fat experiences.
In 1999, a 14-year-old girl by the name of Gina Score died because of forced exercise and a lack of care around fat children’s bodies. Gina, who had been part of a camp run and operated by military veterans, had been tasked with a 2.7-mile run. She fell on the ground, gasping for air. After four hours of her instructors laughing, drinking soda, and accusing Gina of faking, a doctor came and called for an ambulance immediately. Gina’s organs had failed. She had died.
In an extreme case like this, many would call what happened to Gina abuse. And it is. But it is also murder. The abuse did not start and end with Gina’s collapse or with the coaches’ negligence, though; the abuse began with the idea that Gina ever needed to be punished for her weight in the first place.
One of the most infamous fat camps in the country, Camp Shane—which has been in operation since 1968, has been featured on channels like TLC, OWN, MTV, and more. According to their own website, they have hosted well over 20,000 children at their campsites. It’s marketed as just another summer camp with the friendly intent to help children make friends and “fit in,” but the reality is that these camps do not exist for any other reason but to punish fat children. No matter how “fun” the camps are supposed to be, they are all designed to teach fat children that their fatness is something to be ashamed of. And much like diet programs, fat camps are nothing more than a capitalist money-grab. Most of the results, just like with dieting, are only temporary.
Children are sent to these boot camp-like weight loss programs to be shamed for their weight; manipulated into believing that the abuse they’re forced to endure is about being accepted instead of being punished for owning a body that looks different from what the rest of the world sees as normal. And I continue to use the word “punish” throughout this essay because that’s what it is. Fat kids are being penalized for their bodies; “whipped into shape”; disciplined for something the rest of the world views as an offense and a breach of an imagined moral code.
Everyday life for fat kids is like a fat camp. Even for those of us who have never been to one. Mistreated for having bodies that take up more room than humans are allotted. Harmed for showing up in a world hellbent on making thinness a universal “norm.” And no one other than fat people will name this for what it is: a very targeted form of child abuse. There is no other way to put it. Forcing exercise and diets on your children is an attempt to punish them for their (perceived) fatness and that is abuse.
To be clear: I do not blame my mom. She was doing what she thought was best. And I imagine that most other parents believe they are, too. I blame the medical-industrial complex that thrives off of harming fat people. I blame the diet industrial complex that seeks to steal from fat people. I blame the public school system for seeking to punish literal children for their bodies. And most yet, I blame our collective and societal commitment to making exercise and fitness about weight loss and punishment rather than feeling good in your body and in motion.