“Mom,” my six year old son said to me, “I think there should be rules against showing some kind of stuff on television. Those shows you were watching, they should not be allowed to have that on television, don’t you think?”
And I had to think back. What was I watching? Prison Break? Nope, we don’t have HBO. The Sopranos? Nope, again, no HBO and besides, I think that’s over and done with. Plus, this kid watches Star Wars, full of explosions and chases and The Force that kills. But then I remember. I was watching episode after episode of a show about an obesity treatment center in New York. Brookhaven something or other. It was New Year’s Day and I turned on the TV as I stepped onto the treadmill. I was curious as to why an obesity treatment center would let its patients have access to phones and the front door so they could call and order a large pizza with extra toppings, or Kung Pao Chicken with a side of pupu platter. Some of the patients have lived at this place for 2 years, even 4, without losing any weight at all. It wasn’t hard to see why, given the contraband food that was coming in and being consumed in the dark of night, but it was hard to fathom that the insurance companies paying for the treatment hadn’t questioned the fact that 800 pound Mary was still weighing in at 800 pounds after 3 years of “treatment”.
So I left the television on and watched with a sick fascination as I ran on the treadmill and I didn’t think much of it when my son wandered downstairs and sat quietly on the sofa. I guess at some point I noticed that he was staring, somewhat transfixed at the television, at the 700 pound man with the elephantitis of his leg, but then again, so was I. In hindsight, I should have turned the TV off.
It’s a new year, and people are making resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, and although this show didn’t offer the same kind of motivation as say, the season finale of The Biggest Loser, where you think if they can do it I can too, it had I thought, some motivational aspect to it. The negative reinforcement that makes you run just a little bit faster or a little bit farther as you think to yourself “No way would I let myself get like that. Certainly I’d give up the chocolate ice cream the moment I realized that I wasn’t able to squeeze through my front door anymore…”
After the treatment center show ended came episodes of Big Medicine, where they showed patients undergoing gastric bypass surgery and full body lifts to remove excess skin that remained after such profound weight loss. And still I watched, hoping to use the negative reinforcement as motivation to keep me on the treadmill for just another mile, or maybe even two.
Later that evening I tucked my son in bed and left his room. I had only taken about three steps beyond his bedroom door when he called me back, “Mommy,” he cried, “I need you.” So I turned back, opened his door. “What is it sweetheart? What do you need?”
“I’m worried,” he cried, as tears started to roll down his face. “I am afraid I am going to be like those people when I grow up.”
“What people, sweetheart? Who are you talking about?”
“Those people on TV, the ones with the tumors…” he sniffed.
And again I had to think back, those people on TV with the tumors? Then it hit me, the obesity clinic show… The man with elephantitis, the woman with the lipomas…
“Oh sweetheart!” I said. “Come here,” I said, and hugged him. “You won’t grow up to be like that I promise.”
“I won’t? How do you know?” he cried, his face now wet from a river of tears.
“Because,” I said, “Those people, they just didn’t take very good care of themselves, they didn’t eat enough healthy food or get enough exercise. And some of it’s genetics…”
“What’s genetics?” he asked.
“Genetics… genetics are like a secret code that comes from your parents to make you who you are. I have brown eyes and you have brown eyes and daddy had brown eyes,” I explained, “that’s genetics.” “And besides,” I went on, “Daddy and I aren’t like those people on TV, are we?”
“No,” he admitted.
“So” I said, “It’s not in your genetics to be like that. And even if it was I wouldn’t let you get like that. I would not let you eat too much junk food. I would make you eat healthy food. You play outside, you ride your bike, you get lots of exercise. And you eat carrots and other healthy food… Plus, you know what? With your food allergies you can’t eat a lot of junk food anyway. You can’t get a cheeseburger and french fries from McDonalds or Burger King. We cook mostly healthy food at home,” I said. “And besides,” I went on, desperate to convince him, “Some of those people probably eat bowls of potato chips for breakfast, and you don’t do that, you eat cereal.”
“Yeah,” he said, starting to brighten a little, “and cereal is healthy, right?”
It took about 30 minutes to convince him that he would be okay, that he wouldn’t end up like the people on television, so obese that they were confined to a hospital bed and unable to walk more than a few short steps, so obese that they suffered a host of related conditions such as cellulitis and elephantitis and seven pound tumors composed of fat and growing off the side of their thighs. I felt sad for these patients. I was curious about the ones who wanted help yet cheated on their diets nightly by ordering pizzas and breadsticks to eat as a snack after the evening meal had already been served. I was bothered that the patients could remain at the clinic for years without making any progress, away from their families who missed their presence at home. I was irritated that the show didn’t have follow-ups or success stories to share, no “It’s been 2 years since Mary left the clinic and she’s maintained her 500 pound weight loss despite all odds…” But mostly, I was saddened that the show had frightened my child to the point that it took 30 minutes to dry his tears and calm his fears.
I was nervous the next evening at dinner. Would my son refuse to eat? Would a plate of food remind him of that television show? But everything was fine. He announced that we should have a rule to eat healthy foods and then he cleaned his plate and asked for a banana split for dessert. “Bananas,” he told me, “are a healthy food! So we can eat banana splits! But you know what, Mom?” he continued, “Do you know why I don’t like salad? Because it doesn’t have any taste. Or it has taste but it also doesn’t have taste? So not having any taste gives it an X. And the taste it does have gets an X. So that’s a double X. And a double X is bad. But actually… well, I just hate salad. And I still think we need some rules about what shows we can watch on TV in this house. That show you were watching, that shouldn’t be allowed to be watched anymore, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I’m sorry that show scared you. We won’t watch that anymore,” I said, as I turned to prepare his “healthy” banana split, complete with half a banana, a spoonful of soy ice cream, colorful sprinkles, and a sour cherry ball on top. Health food, indeed.