10-Year-Olds Are More Afraid of Fat Than Cancer: Why That Hits Home for Me

little girl overweight on scaleI'm mid-suicide run. Morbid name for it, to be sure, but the drill-style workout -- in which you run to and from a starting line to a progressively farther line -- can have you feeling, well, like you're going to die. But somehow, I feel stronger, more powerful, and more capable than I've ever felt while moving my body this way. Yet, for the most part, I'm struggling to accept this, because part of me still feels like an overweight 10-year-old trudging behind her peers in gym class, coughing and heaving and scowling at the teacher who has tasked us with the state-required one-mile run.

Maybe that's one reason why a startling statistic, cited by Jes Baker's now-viral TED Talk, hit me -- hard. Baker says young girls are more afraid of getting "fat" than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents. She also notes that 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.

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Horrifying and heartbreaking, sure. But what makes it even worse is that, having been that "fat" 10-year-old, I can't say I blame a child for being afraid.

At 10 years old, your peers don't wonder or care why you're fat, and even if they did, nothing you could say to explain yourself could excuse it. Really, whether you're 10 or 40, fat is automatically associated with laziness, a lack of self-discipline, stupidity. "Don't you know better than to eat that?" "Why can't you get up and exercise?" "How brainless do you have to be to let yourself go like that?"

Because they don't know how to articulate them just like that yet, these judgment calls kids make about their overweight peers are expressed with good, old-fashioned name-calling. "Thunder thighs" or "tub of lard" are among a couple of the "greatest hits" I recall being addressed with. Meanwhile, my parents sat down with doctors and my grandparents to discuss the possible solution to my Big Fat Problem. After all, something had to be done.

No, thank God being overweight is not cancer. But in a society where we slam girls and women so readily for not fitting what we deem acceptable, often unrealistic standards of beauty and weight, excess weight -- and all the misery that comes with it -- is treated like a dreaded disease that must be cured ASAP. Obesity itself is now defined as a disease by the American Medical Association! No matter what the actual root cause (of which there are many) actually is.

My attempted cures for this so-called "disease," at 10, 11, 12, in my late teens, and again in my mid-20s, included SlimFast, weight loss camp, low-fat dieting, dance classes, a painful, brief fling with diet pills, Weight Watchers, calorie-counting, cardio, Weight Watchers again, etc., etc. Until, finally, I was diagnosed with a genetic hormone imbalance that makes it difficult for my body to physiologically respond to stress. My adrenal gland and thyroid function and, in turn, my metabolism are easily compromised. It's complicated, but for me, weight maintenance isn't a black-and-white matter of calories in vs. calories out. It's one of many reasons I broke up with the scale and chose instead to strike up a love affair with wellness and fitness, which trumps any magic number that has nothing to do with how strong I feel, how I fit into my jeans, how others see me, but more importantly, how I see myself. 

In other words, I'm not afraid anymore, and it shows. I feel better about my body than I ever have in my whole life. But no matter how fast I run, I don't think I'm ever going to be able to shake that chubby little girl I once was. Nor do I wonder if I ever should. I love her. Without her, maybe I wouldn't be so much closer to unconditional self-acceptance. Without her, I wouldn't be me. And she reminds me that there's so much more to me than the imperfectly healthy body I've grown up to be grateful for.

It's a work in process for us all, but shifting how we see and treat "fat" could clearly make a whole lot of 10-year-old girls happier and healthier. Because while their fear of fat may be unfounded, it is absolutely, positively unnecessary.

Why do you think most girls are more afraid of getting fat than cancer? What do you think can be done to change that?


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nonmember avatar Michael

Obesity is probably more likely to kill you than cancer (depending on what % of heart disease deaths you link to obesity). And obesity kills your quality of life all thru life, not just at the end as cancer does. Thus IMHO the kids are right to fear obesity more than cancer.

nonmember avatar Mimi

Most of the reason is not enough nutrition. With most of America in the poor house I'm not surprised. They buy what they can to feed their children. Can't eat what you can't afford.

Cathy Caron

Maybe these 10 year old have some sense of relative risk? The chance of becoming fat - for whatever reason - is tremendously higher for kids than any of the other three. So we'd rather have them paranoid about very unlikely but terrible things rather than focusing on common problems which are much more deadly? Did this survey also ask them WHY they feared fat most and it was all about body image? If not I think we need to give girls a bit more credit before tarring them universally with "obsessed with beauty" or "beaten down by bullies" - both have a grain of truth but are hardly empowering.

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