Life at 3: obesity

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Background: this post is about the Life series currently airing on the ABC and affiliated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, specifically the episode Life at 3, Part One: Fighting Fat. It is presently available in full on iView for those with Australian IPs and to whom it is accessible.

Ooo boy. It probably wasn’t ever going to be good, was it?

Let’s start with the basics:

Headless fatties. (Recalling that headlessness is a major obesity risk factor!). Headless fatties are shown at:

  • 3:06–3:44: Camera pans horizontally past a blurred very slightly rounded pale-skinned bare abdomen, a blurred shape that might be a pale upper arm outside a black sleeveless top, a second pale abdomen with arms crossed at the top of it, a fatter pale abdomen with (probably male?) breast tissue resting on it, and then cuts to two presumed women’s bodies shown neck to knee and wearing black bra and panties. Both women are pale skinned and one is fatter than the other. They spin around simultaneously from presenting their front to the camera to presenting their back. There is a close-up of them joining hands, some of their upper leg and buttock flesh is in the shot. The camera cuts to a male torso like the fatter one shown previously, and he turns around too, showing his torso from every angle.
  • 32:24–32:50: a brown-skinned fat male torso in black underpants spins to face the camera. It shifts its weight over each leg and spins again. It is joined by a pale slightly rounded woman’s torso in black bra and underpants, a pale fat man’s torso (probably the one from the previous sequence) and a second pale, fatter woman’s torso. They turn simultaneously to have their backs to the camera. The nearest torso, that of the pale man, shows some buttock cleavage.

Headless fatties. CHECK.

[Stephen Zubrick, Chair, Advisory Group, Longitudinal Study of Australian Children appears, as he does throughout the series, in a headshot, looking slightly to the left of camera. He is a late middle-age pale-skinned man with short dark hair.]

Stephen Zubrick: Our data is showing us that one in four toddlers is overweight or obese.

The Life series doesn’t push back much on the science at any point. For example, in Life at One, saliva cortisol samples were taken from the babies and it was assumed without proof that high cortisol equalled a stressed individual baby. Now, I have no medical/biological background at all, but I do have an experimental background, and I spent the whole time mentally screaming “is that a valid assumption? or does cortisol correlate with stress only across a population?” And in fact they had to back away from the automatic interpretation when Joshua, who they didn’t seem to want to interpret as stressed, had very high cortisol. Perhaps… he was just sick! Likewise, the limits of the psychological tests they run on the children in terms of cultural assumptions, edge cases, controls, error margins are never discussed. Obviously there’s a limit to the extent to which this can be done in a TV episode, but in general I wish the series was less “the experts have worked their magic! this child is fat/stressed/extroverted/determined! The end!”

And so, it’s no surprise to find out that this is how obesity is treated. How is obesity in toddlers measured? How strong is the link with childhood or adult obesity? How strong is the link between those and adult disease? And, most elementary to me, how many children are supposed to be overweight or obese? Measures of ‘healthy’ weight are often population based, where the top X% of weight, or BMI, or weight-for-height is defined as overweight, but yet, it is by definition expected that X% of people will be found in that top X%. I’d definitely like to be convinced that their measure of “overweight or obese” does not define overweight to be the top 25% of the population somehow.

There’s fairly standard fatphobic language about food: “good”, “bad”, and some tsking at the parents for using what the show’s writers seem to consider a euphemism, “treat food”. Then there’s this odd little sequence:

[Visuals of Ben and a sibling eating.]

Narrator: When we asked parents why they introduced their child to treat food the most common reason given is to reward them for good behaviour.

[Visuals of Daniel eating from a yoghurt container while his mother Kathryn watches.]

Kathryn: Finished?

Daniel: No!

[Visuals of Wyatt eating a sandwich at a table and looking at his father Glen.]

Narrator: But for our parents [note, here they seem to mean “the parents featured in the documentary”, not “the parents of the viewers”], unhealthy treat food was hardly ever offered up as a reward.

[Headshots of individual parents.]

Kylie [mother of Ben]: Aw crap I can’t even remember what we were given. [Rolls eyes.] Probably Vegemite sandwiches.

Michelle [mother of Jara’na]: Yeah we didn’t sort of get a lot of rewards when we were kids. There was too many of us.

Paul [father of Ben]: I don’t think there actually was a lot of time I did actually get a reward for doing anything good or anything like that. I kinda just had to do it.

Bernadette [mother of Sofia]: I think I got to stay up late and watch TV with my Dad as a reward! [laughs]

Steffi [mother of Joshua]: Maybe go to the park. Maybe go to the zoo. Or maybe my mother make me a new dress.

Kathryn [mother of Daniel]: My reward was actual praise. I didn’t get any food or anything like that. So once in a while you’d get, I’d get maybe a treat, but much of it was just mainly praise.

Narrator: Over one generation we are seeing a massive cultural change in the way we use and view food. Unfortunately, this shift has coincided with a dramatic reduction in how much physical activity our children do.

The statement about physical activity appears to be driven by the study’s data, but it seems that the “food was never used as a reward in 1975” hypothesis was one the writers came up with themselves based on interviewing parents of three year olds about how they believe they were rewarded as, say, eight year olds (since they mostly won’t remember being three). Aggravating in a series that is supposed to be informed by the study.

Another problem with this episode is a structural problem with the entire series. There are two episodes for each age group, each loosely focused around a specific issue. Life at 3’s two episodes are Fighting Fat and Bad Behaviour. Each of the children is allocated to an episode and their development and family situation is partly discussed for its own sake and partly discussed with relevance to the topic at hand.

For Fighting Fat this means that the primary interest in each of the toddlers it focuses on is “will it make them fat?”

So we have Joshua, who is among other things a toddler, of Chinese ethnicity, a younger brother, the child of an immigrant mother and the child of a father who downsized his career for his family and wants a low-pressure environment for his children. What’s the most interesting thing about Joshua at age three? Apparently that children of recent immigrants might get fat.

We have Ben, who is among other things a toddler, of unmentioned ethnicity (the cultural identity of most of the pale-skinned children is unremarked on), a survivor of a quintuplet pregnancy and a premature and very low weight birth, a brother to his quintuplet siblings and an older sibling. What’s the most interesting thing about Ben at age three? Apparently that children with low birth weights might get fat.

We have Shine, who is among other things a toddler, of unmentioned ethnicity (in Life at 5 her father meets his birth family, who are Irish), a child living in poverty, a youngest sibling in a larger family, and the biological child of an adoptee. What’s the most interesting thing about Shine at three? Apparently that children in poorer families might get fat.

It probably had to happen in some form. Could you get a childhood study funded right now that didn’t have a major obesity focus? But the television treatment is very uncritical, and moreover appropriates several potentially interesting standalone stories.

See other Life posts at Hoyden: Life at 1: breastfeeding, Life at 1, 3, 5: disability, Life at 1, 3, 5: general discussion.