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Crack down on fat

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Friday, 27 April 2007

It’s a tough place, the school yard. Who of us went unscathed in the rigours of school life, where every tiny difference or impediment was magnified a thousand fold?

The ALP has a proposal which, while having much to recommend it, could add to the cacophony of harsh judgments against one group of children - those deemed overweight or obese.

Children would be checked for obesity under an ALP plan to introduce a national scheme of health and development tests for all school starters.


Kate Carnell, who was part of a meeting to discuss the “Healthy Kids Check” plan, said obesity checks were “a priority”.

While I welcome any initiative that contributes to healthier children, I’m worried about any campaign which singles out children on the basis of weight. Schools could be turned into the site of a “biggest loser” competition, if not handled with great sensitivity.

School kids already understand the equation Big = Bad.

It is inevitable there would be jokes about “breaking the scales” or “are you the biggest loser?” directed at larger size kids. Recently, Singapore dumped a program aimed at cutting obesity levels in schools, as overweight children were being singled out and teased by their class mates. Even the nanny state of Asia has figured out this sort of approach doesn’t work.

The ALP move adds to a growing list of proposals to crack down on fat: fax taxes, fat camps, bans on junk food advertising, tax-payer funded private weight reduction programs, There’s even talk of removing welfare payments from single mothers who haven’t been successful in getting their kids to lose weight.

Governments should do more to educate, encourage and empower - coercion should be an absolute last resort. Punishing already stressed single mothers is not going to result in good health outcomes. Rather than punishment, parents need support and resources to make good choices, not just have a rule book thrown at them.


Conveying a message to children, already vulnerable at a time of rapidly changing body shape and with hormones awry, that if you’re not slim you’re a failure, is not going to help the self-esteem levels of young people.

It has now been established that the media’s portrayal of the “ideal” female form as skinny is a pathological influence among women who already have some of the setting conditions for an eating disorder.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on the health of young people shows that eating disorders and mental health problems are among the leading causes of burden of disease in young women.

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This is an edited and expanded version of an article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald  on April 12, 2007.

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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation ( Melinda blogs at

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