BBC Radio interviewed me recently on the ethics of a Puerto Rico government proposition to fine the parents of overweight children. Aware that I was once an overweight child, the host asked me if I blamed my parents for my prior poor health. Her question left me asking myself: “When it comes to childhood obesity, why are we often more concerned with assigning blame than finding a solution?”
By this point, we’ve all seen enough documentaries to identify the culprits behind the childhood obesity epidemic: corporate food lobbyists that push products packed with processed sugar, negligent or uneducated parents that reward and appease their children with fatty foods, and a communal lethargy that has cultivated a generation more concerned with Angry Birds than exercise. As a nation, we wag our fingers at these usual suspects. We demand change—if not for the sake of our children’s happiness, than to prevent the impending financial burden it will inevitably impress upon our healthcare system. Yet progress is slow. We lose weight, and we relapse. For Americans, this cycle has become all too familiar, routine, and tired. Eventually, we all succumb to the temptation of commercial junk food and experience the obligatory shame of failure. So, to make ourselves feel better, we eat more, meanwhile searching for someone else to take the blame—anyone but ourselves.
As a nation, the essential ingredient we are starving for is personal accountability. I don’t make this assertion as a dietitian or a boy spoon-fed organic Greek yogurt by a mother who never allowed junk food in the house. I speak as someone born and raised in Oklahoma, the state with the recorded lowest consumption of fruits and vegetables in the nation. I have struggled with my weight since I buttoned my first pair of “husky” jeans in the 3rd grade. I was the kid peeling the breading off the popcorn chicken I purchased in the cafeteria. To my skinny middle-school peers blessed with an athlete’s metabolism, I was an oddity. In their eyes, my self-assigned Atkins diet was the equivalent to cannibalism—foreign and ultimately inexcusable. They made sure I knew I was unwelcome at their table (you can only stand to have so many tater tots chucked at your head before you uproot).
I moved on to college, where I continued to struggle with weight. When I graduated from USC with a degree in film production, I was over 265 pounds. I’ll never forget coming home after graduation. My mother confessed deep concern for how big I had become. After our conversation, I sat down in the shower, hunched in defeat, and counted the fat rolls in my stomach. I was victim to my environment. My weight was the consequence of my upbringing. It was my parents’ fault. I convinced myself the inadequacies of my surroundings dictated my condition, not my personal choices. Like a drug addict, I took no responsibility for my own impulses, and the fact that I could not refuse them. If only I could be sequestered away from my reality, like the contestants on The Biggest Loser. Then I could finally achieve real change.
My family has watched NBC’s The Biggest Loser, now in its 16th season, since the show’s inception. Together, we gathered around the television, sang the opening theme song, and watched the contestants sweat, scream, and cry their way toward success—measured predominantly (if not entirely) by the scale. I would be lying if I didn’t confess I envied the contestants. My parents and siblings echoed my jealousy. We consoled ourselves with the thought that we too could change our lives if only we were provided equal privileges: a personal chef to cater to our nutritional needs, not to mention time away from work or school to give our bodies the full attention they deserve (yet never seem to receive).
Unlike my family, I refused to play the victim. In spite of the challenges imposed by my environment, I decided to make a personal change. For me, the catalyst was Wii Fit, a form of exer-gaming. Considering I grew up a gamer that merited self-worth based upon my high score (much like a scale), I was dismayed when I achieved a novice ranking on the latest Nintendo platform now that my body was the controller. My proclivity to chase perfection, coupled with my natural love of video gaming, drove me to play until the game awarded me five stars on every challenge. Without really being aware of it, I lost twenty pounds over one summer. My transformation inspired an epiphany: Success is not about weight loss. It’s about finding an activity that keeps you active and that makes you happy.
Bite Size embodies this simple message through the stories of four inspiring obese children from diverse backgrounds who are fighting for their health one day at a time. Rather than projecting blame, these children embody our inherent potential to become the vision we dream. To all those who say environment is the sole culprit of childhood obesity, I reply that I have witnessed a 290-pound 12 year-old boy, diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, overcome negligent parents and a toxic food environment, purely driven by his passion to play professional football and make his coach proud. Now a 16-year-old, he no longer has to take insulin shots to regulate his blood sugar. In fact, he’s completely off medication. His name is Davion. He’s my hero, and he’s one of the four stars you’ll meet when you watch Bite Size.
Ultimately, when it comes to obesity, you are to blame, and you are the solution. No matter the perceived limitations imposed by our circumstances, class, or race, our excuses will always be outnumbered by the opportunities available in our local community. Find a physical activity that you love, share your passion with your parents or role models, and incorporate it into your daily life. Routine becomes habit, and soon the change you once considered forced will seem effortless.
Taking responsibility is hard, but it is something I watched four brave 12-year-old kids do over the course of four years. As an adult, what is your excuse? Learn from their example, and mine, and take back control of your health. Don’t place blame, and therefore power, in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats and parents that, more often than not, are equal victims to a broken food system. Demand change with your dollar. You don’t have to shop organic, but buy local and purchase whole foods (only one ingredient). Cook at home and enjoy the sweet taste of a ripe cherry tomato grown in your community garden. I guarantee it tastes far better than defeat.
Bite Size is available for purchase on www.bitesizemovie.com and exclusively on Vimeo on Demand beginning March 10th. Available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, VUDU, and DVD March 24, 2015.