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There’s no place like home — unless you’re a fat kid

interview by Jeanette DePatie (the Fat Chick), MA, ACE

An eight-year-old Cleveland Heights boy was removed from his family’s custody and placed in foster care.  The boy weighs over 200 pounds, and county health workers apparently removed him from his family over concerns that his mother wasn’t doing enough to help him lose weight.

 How does taking a fat kid away from his parents make him any healthier?  Is there data that shows that when you are removed from your family, your home, you lose weight? Of course not.

 Remember the 2001 case of Anamarie Regino, in Albuquerque, N.M.? She was removed from her home at age 4 because she was considered dangerously overweight.  She was put on a medically-supervised, highly restrictive diet and still gained weight.  After a month, they admitted they didn’t understand why she was gaining weight and sent her back home to her parents.  It was later determined Anamarie had a genetic condition that explained her weight gain.  So Sorry!  Our bad!  Other than traumatizing an entire family, what exactly was accomplished there?

 I am sure authorities will say they are acting out of concern for the child’s wellbeing.  But what about a concern about the emotional scars borne by fat children who are removed from their homes?  Scars that leading size acceptance expert and author Cheri Erdman, Ed.D., remembers all too well.  Erdman speaks eloquently about size acceptance in her two books: Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body and Live Large: Affirmations for Living the Life You Want in the Body You Already Have.

 When I was six years old, my kindergarten teacher knew two things about me—I had a high I.Q. and I was fat.  The teacher and school social worker called in my parents and told them they thought I would be better off if I were thinner. They suggested I be sent to a Fresh Air camp to lose weight and my family agreed.

Erdman spent the next 13.5 months living away from her family at the camp.  Her parents were allowed to visit on Friday nights.  She was not allowed to see her brother or to go home—even for her birthday or for Christmas.  Remember, it was for her own good.

I was only six, so I really didn’t understand the nuances of what had happened.  I was convinced that I had done something very, very wrong to cause them to take me away from my family.  I didn’t understand entirely what I had done wrong, but I knew that my body was bad and that I couldn’t go home until my body was good.

Having a good body meant losing about 30 pounds.  Naturally she regained the 30 pounds and more shortly after returning home from the camp.  This set the stage for an unhealthy mix of body hatred, yo-yo dieting, resentment, shame and regret in the years ahead.

 Over the year and a half after I came home, I regained all the weight, and it really upset my Mom.  She was upset with me for not keeping the weight off and I imagine she was upset with herself for sending me away, regretting her decision.  And I was upset with her for constantly obsessing about my weight and what I ate.  It was a hurtful and confusing time for me and it created this very negative dynamic with me, my mom and food.

 Removing a fat kid from the home doesn’t just hurt the fat child, it damages the entire family. 

 After I came home, we didn’t talk about it for years.  When I finally talked to my Dad, he told me that their Friday visits to Fresh Air camp was part of a weekly ritual of pain.  My Mom would start crying on Wednesday and Thursday, and then cry all day Friday anticipating the visit.  After the visit she’d cry all night Friday and into Saturday.  By Sunday they would have a little peace at least until the whole thing started over the following Wednesday.  My Mom and I never talk about it, even to this day.  My brother was only four when this happened, and what did he learn?  He learned that if you were fat they send you away.

Erdman willingly shares her story with us out of a hope that it will help people understand the deep trauma and ultimate futility that comes from taking kids out of their family environment simply because they are fat.

I went through all of that, and my family went through all of that, for no reason.  I didn’t keep the weight off and decades later, I’m still fat.  And it was so unnecessary!  If we had known about HAESSM and simply followed a common-sense, Health At Every Size® approach, we could have avoided the whole mess.

 We don’t know all the details about this specific Cleveland Heights case, and we may never know. But this case has drawn national attention to a very important question.  We aren’t removing kids from homes where family members smoke.  We aren’t removing kids from families that don’t exercise.  And there’s no evidence that fat kids removed from their homes become thinner or healthier in the long term.  So is removing a fat child from her home about better health for that child?  Or is it really about our own prejudices towards fat people?

 For ASDAH recommended resources on working with children and weight visit ASDAH’s resources.

Cheri K. Erdman, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She is the author of “Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body” and “Live Large!” and was an early activist for size-acceptance. Dr. Erdman currently lives in Florida with her husband where she practices as a Celebrant, officiating weddings and other life-cycle ceremonies. She is a mixed media artist and a volunteer for several non-profit organizations.

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