Note to self: don’t read the news before bedtime. I do know better!
But last night I didn’t listen to my own advice and I couldn’t scroll past an item with the headline:
‘Two teenagers placed in foster care after weight loss plan fails’.

WHAAAATTTT?

We’re removing fat children from their parents now because they couldn’t or didn’t lose weight???

I’m not against children being removed from their families if they are in danger. If they’re being abused or neglected – please – put them somewhere safe! But being fat is not inherently dangerous. This treatment of the children, however, (removing them from their family because of their weight) does put them at risk of a lifetime of eating disorders and internalised weight stigma – and who knows what other trauma might now befall them as a consequence of this action.

While the article in the Guardian speaks of ’poor home conditions’ and a ‘lack of guidance on personal care’ they don’t say what that means. It also says this was a ‘loving family’, that the ‘children had clearly had some very good parenting, as they were polite, bright, and engaging.’ Knowing how articles can cherry pick soundbites and leave out important information, I sought out the original court judgement which you can read here. It is chilling reading.

Fatphobia runs rampant throughout the judgement. The children’s weight is the defining issue in the decision to remove them from their mother’s care. Go ahead and read it and let me know if you come to the same conclusion I have: if these children were somewhere in the middle of the weight spectrum and everything else was the same – same living conditions, same dietary quality, same level of physical movement, same mental health conditions – they would not have been put into foster care.

Assumptions made:

  • If you’re fat or gaining weight you cannot be eating healthily or exercising.
  • If you’re fat you WILL be unhealthy and you WILL have health problems (even if none exist now).
  • You need to lose weight to improve mental health and confidence.
  • Being fat is the result of lifestyle choices.
  • Policing children’s eating behaviour will make them thin.

Truths:

  • Dietary quality varies across the BMI bands – this means that you cannot tell how or what someone eats based on their size or BMI. Also, even if one eats so-called ‘healthy food’ consistently, this does not automatically result in weight loss. (I learned this from Fiona Willer’s excellent Unpacking Weight Science podcast episode16. This is the reference.)
  • Health promoting behaviours are more predictive of one’s risk of death than weight.
  • Weight stigma has a bigger impact on our health than the ‘unhealthiest dietary habits.’ (from Bacon, L. 2020. Radical Belonging – which cites this paper).
  • There are many reasons for fatness: genetics, epigenetics, poverty, trauma, stress, illness, history of dieting and other potential factors. It’s not a simple matter of calories in vs calories out.
  • Policing children’s eating behaviour risks the development of eating disorders! In fact parental encouragement to diet is associated with future weight gain (surprise surprise).
  • Dieting has a very high failure rate!!! Remember that dieting is any intentional intervention to control weight.
  • Weight stigma rather than the weight itself is the likely cause of the poor mental health. Yes, weight loss may result in a change in confidence – but that is only because the person will be receiving external approval and/ or reduction in bullying because of the change in appearance. This confidence will only last as long as the weight loss, and potentially it won’t even last that long. Why? Because how would you feel if you knew people were being nicer to you simply because your appearance changed? What does that do to a person’s sense of self-worth? Also, constantly worrying about whether you’ll regain weight and what that might mean doesn’t exactly create inner peace 🤯.

What’s likely to happen to these children?

If weight is the overriding concern of the authorities who have ordered the removal of these children from their mother, then, in addition to all the truths above, I wish they knew this:

Research shows that children who diet are 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t and that those who are on very restricted diets are 18 times more likely to develop an ED.

Also, ever having dieted is a strong predictor of future weight gain. So if being fat is the horror to be avoided, then removing these children from their mother and putting them into care where their eating will be monitored and controlled (a goal of the foster care) is quite likely to result in further weight gain at some point, if not full blown eating disorders.

The trauma of being removed from your parents (when they are a loving and close-knit family) is just too awful to even contemplate. The food policing they are likely to be faced with is a recipe for disaster in the future. The indoctrination and fear-mongering about weight and health is potentially going to result in weight cycling (an independent risk factor for all sorts of health issues) and life long difficulties with food, body image and mental health.

Imagine the consequences of growing up knowing that you were removed against yours and your parents’ will from the family home, because your body was seen to be problematic. What will that do to a person’s relationship with their body?

What message does this judgement give other parents with kids on the higher end of the weight spectrum? Is it going to increase the chances that they will encourage/ pressure their children to lose weight (causing all the harms already mentioned)?

What message does it give parents whose kids are at a ‘safe’ weight (meaning they are not at risk of removal from social services). Will they too become ever watchful and worried that their children must maintain their ‘safe’ weight to keep them from being removed from their homes? Will this then result in an even higher incidence of eating disorders (which currently have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition)?

What might be next? Court-ordered stomach amputation for minors?

I dearly hope that the foster care they receive is kind, compassionate, supportive and non-stigmatising. I hope this decision doesn’t make this terrible situation even worse for these children. But given what I know, I fear that’s unlikely. I just can’t see any good coming from it.

If you want to help, please sign and share this petition.

In closing, a little prayer for those children and all children:

May they be well
May they be safe
May they know joy in their bodies
May they be treated with kindness and respect
May they be free from harm.

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