I Was a 90s Fat Kid, a Harbinger of the Childhood Obesity Crisis
I asked my family what it was like to raise an overweight kid during the childhood obesity epidemic, but it seems no one noticed.
When my mom came home at the age 22 and said she was pregnant, aside from the general disappointment parents feel when your unwed young daughter says she's knocked up, my grandmother was thrilled. I was the first baby in our immediate family in decades, and when I arrived, a mere six pounds and one ounce, my grandparents decided they would give me everything they could. By the age of eight, I had visited most of the world's continents, loved Broadway and took dance classes and gymnastics. I also had unlimited access to food. I lived like a queen: I ate well, I had people at my beck and call, I always had a stroller to ride in or someone to carry me. If I threw a fit, I got a milkshake; if I threw another, I got one more.
I ate just about everything nutritionists would say no to—Big Macs, fries, McDonald's pizza (remember those?), hot dogs, milkshakes, Dunkaroos, Lunchables, Teddy Grahams, Mr. Noodles, Fruit Gushers, Spice Girls Chupa Chups, Bugles, Pillsbury toaster strudels—in large quantities, all day, every day. If I wasn't eating a delicious assortment of food items and sweets, I was overfeeding my Tamagotchi and Neopets to the point of food explosion.
I was a 90s fat kid, the biracial doppleganger of Bruce Bogtrotter from Matilda. I used to skip to that part of the movie just to watch him eat that perfect chocolate cake. I dreamt of being in that position. Would I eat that cake even though a sweaty, mustached lady just told me it was made with blood, sweat and tears? Hell yes. I spent my childhood searching for a similar cake until I stumbled upon one at a Just Desserts café. My mom saw the savage come out as I devoured it. She never took me back again.
A 2015 study found that the epidemic of childhood obesity in the US and UK actually started in the 90s, with nearly a fifth of boys and a quarter of girls born after 1990 being obese before their tenth birthday. According to the study, individuals born in the 1990s are two to three times more likely to be obese than individuals born between the 1940s and 1980s.
The study suggested the changing lifestyle of the 90s to be one of the kickstarters of childhood obesity: more kids in front of computer and TV screens, more time on homework, and aggressive marketing of junk food targeted at children.
The health consequences for overweight children are serious. Rebecca Hardy, a researcher involved in the study, told Vitality that, "The more of their lives people spend overweight or obese, the greater risk of developing chronic health conditions such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis."
Childhood obesity is now considered a health crisis in Canada. According to a 2013 report called "No Time to Wait" by the Ontario's Healthy Kid Panel, 30 percent of children and adolescents (one in three children) are overweight. It mostly affects boys and Aboriginal children (the number of obese adults has doubled, tripled for children, and 62.5 percent of Aboriginal children under 11 are obese). Obesity costs Canada between $4.6 and $7.1 billion annually, and the Canadian Health Measures Survey says kids today are "fatter, rounder, weaker, and less flexible than their parents were a generation ago."
A few weeks ago, a new Senate report addressed new ways to end obesity in Canada. The report criticized Canada's Food Guide, declaring it needs a major overhaul because it's "dated" and "enabling." The report also urged federal action to curb obesity by suggesting a sugar tax on drinks and banning food and drink ads for kids. "We can't sugar-coat it any longer. There is an obesity crisis in Canada and sugar is a big part of that problem. We must act," said Kelvin Ogilvie, the committee's chair.
In the 90s, we didn't have the same knowledge on obesity that we do now, let alone a Senate report warning about the dangers of sugar and junk. Life went on as usual with fat kids and their parents.
My mom and grandparents never consulted once with a doctor, nor did my doctor make any comments—so it's hard to tell if I was just overweight or obese. I believe it was the latter. "It was more in relation to seeing other kids, or when we took pictures, that you looked a little bigger than the other kids," my grandpa tells me. "We just didn't want you getting any bigger." I question how parents whose child is the size of a small sumo wrestler didn't notice a weight problem, but when I call up my family to ask them, they were genuinely surprised.
My grandpa tells I threw fits every time we passed by a McDonald's (which was relatively easy considering it wasn't far from where I lived). He says it was the toys that I wanted most, but when I got there, I'd end up eating.
By kindergarten (keep in mind that I was five), I was towering over my classmates, both in height and circumference. Most years, my mom would have my birthday party at my favourite place—McDonald's. If you see my pictures, you'd think someone invited Yogi bear to a children's campfire. That, or the girl-child version of Biggie was in town.
By the time I was six years old, I was wearing pants with elastic and drawstring sweatpants. If I did fit into kids clothing, it was for older children. Add to the fact that my Pakistani mom and grandma didn't know how to style black hair, and I was a hot mess in an oversized T-shirt, hot pink leggings pulled up to my chest, and frizzy braids adorned with plastic butterfly clips.
But what I wanted was to look more like a girl-lady. My grandma would buy these DIY kits that came with fabric to make your kid a dress. She'd have to buy two packages to make me one dress, probably the equivalent of material needed to make a tablecloth.
When I was barely six and well beyond the average weight of 44 pounds, my grandparents enrolled me in all-girls soccer practice. I couldn't kick the ball for shit, and the team thought I was useless. At the end of our first practice, we had to line to up get our team jersey. My coach was a cute teenage guy, and I knew right then that this wouldn't end well as all the pint-sized little girls ran up and got their beautiful, small-sized, emerald green jerseys.
Fat but not stupid, I waited until the line was done to go up and get mine. I couldn't look the cute coach in the eye. But he eyed me, alright—just not the way I hoped.
"Um... let's try this one," he said nicely as he scrounged for the next size up. When he took it out, my grandma put it on me. It was like squeezing sausage into casing. To conclude, it took a painstaking 15 minutes to find me a jersey that fit, which ended up being for the older girls' team. While my teammates ran around, glistening in their silky, deep green jerseys, I hobbled around in an ugly, algae green one.
I asked my grandpa if it was then that they realized maybe I had a weight problem. He says it still never came up, although he made the point of commenting on my athletic abilities. "You couldn't run as fast as the other kids," he tells me.
My mom also never thought I was obese, just a little hefty. "When me or your grandmother would go on Jenny Craig and we'd get the pre-cooked meals, you'd sneak into the freezer and eat the mac and cheese," she tells me. My mom worked late when I was a toddler, and I'd spend all day with my grandma, who obliged my every food desire. When my mom got home, I wanted to be carried, but she couldn't pick me up. "You were so fucking heavy," she says. "But you were fed with love."
This denial is coming from the woman who knows I'd choose food over a man. The last time my mom dared to share food with me, I was six years old and wouldn't give her a bite of my blueberry pie. We got into a fight and she didn't talk to me for days.
The whole "we loved you and didn't notice you were fat" comes up a lot when I ask my family to share my fat stories. Nobody has any, because they didn't think I was fat. They keep telling me how cute and happy I was (little did they know about my school yard life, keep reading), even though by eight I had reached colossal status. Keep in mind, I come from a family that doesn't sugar-coat anything. These people weren't trying to soften the blow—they genuinely didn't notice they had raised a blimp.
What's missing from the equation of childhood obesity is parental responsibility. In 2015, researchers at NYU Langone Medical studied two groups of children: a group of 3,839 kids from 1988 to 1994, and a group of 3,151 kids from 2007-2012. In the first group, 97 percent of parents of overweight boys and 88 percent of parents of overweight girls said their kids were the "right weight." The numbers were similar for the more recent group, and a study the year before had similar findings.
When I ask my aunt if she noticed how big I was, she was speechless. "We used to say that kids who are well-loved and hugged are healthy, so we'd assumed that you were like that because we were always hugging you. You were so happy."
Not really. School was the place I found out I was a bigger fatty than I thought. The only reason I wasn't picked last in gym class was because during dodgeball, I made a fabulous human shield to hide behind, and during volleyball, kids would scatter like loose coins when I served the ball. During red rover, they would unlink their hands long before I even made it to the other side.
When boys played that stupid game of rating their female classmates, I was at the end of the list. My friends tried to set me up with a kid at the school across the fence, but when he saw me, he recoiled. I became the weekly school yard event because some little shit would steal my lunch and run around the yard, and kids would laugh as I chased him for my food.
This is all funny, but what it really did was kill my confidence, even to this day. I was 16 the first time I spoke to a boy, and 19 by the time I was comfortable making eye contact with people. I'm still extremely shy when I go out in public, and I assume that everyone is laughing at me when they probably don't even realize I'm there. Sometimes I swear I waddle. I even monitor how I eat my lunch because I think I'm going to be ridiculed for holding my sandwich a certain way, and I avoid trying to squeeze through tight spaces even though I know I can. Weight is still a constant battle.
Some experts say that the research is too limited to link self-esteem and depression issues to childhood obesity, but several studies have found a correlation. A 2009 report by researchers at the University of Alberta used Statistics Canada data from the mid and late 90s and surveyed kids at the ages of 10 and 11 on their self-esteem. They surveyed the same kids after two and four years, and found that children who were obese had almost twice the chances of reporting low self-esteem four years later compared with normal weight children.
The epidemic had to start somewhere; unfortunately it started with 90s kids (wasn't it bad enough we had soul patches and Fred Durst?). Now we have endless food options for children (kale puree is a thing now?) and value the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle for the little human. Even though our obesity rate is not as bad as the States, we at least acknowledged that we've all played a role in fattening up our kids.
People are appalled when I tell them that I won't allow my future kids to eat whatever they want, but these are usually the skinny people who would've salivated at the chance to tease me. Once a fat kid, always a fat kid, no matter if you've shed the weight, and I refuse to have my children spend their youth crying in their room or starving themselves or being used as a fucking human dodgeball shield because I let them treat their stomach like a garbage can.
When I ask my mom why she let me get so big, she seems entirely convinced that I made myself fat. Deep down, we both know that isn't true, but I'll let her believe what she wants. I think she's still bitter about the blueberry pie.
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