Ali Schmidt, an outgoing, attractive 15-year-old from the Bronx, N.Y., usually looks forward to going to school. But when she showed up at Connecticut's Stratford High School for two days in September, it was a different story.
"Basically, walking down the halls was like walking into hell. I felt pain that was excruciating," she said after the miserable day.
Schmidt found herself the object of ridicule: some kids laughed at her behind her back, others made mean comments.
The reason? She was fat. At least she looked fat. In fact, she was participating in an experiment for ABCNEWS designed to capture a glimpse of the emotional and psychological impact obesity has on adolescents.
Schmidt is a slim, 5-foot-7-inch athletic girl. But for the ABCNEWS special Fat Like Me, airing tonight at 8 p.m. ET, she agreed to wear a "fat suit" that would make her look obese.
Using the same makeup and special effects that were used to make Gwyneth Paltrow look obese in the film Shallow Hal, Ali was packed with padding and layered with latex, so that she looked as though she weighed close to 200 pounds.
She found that kids she normally might expect to be friends with ridiculed her after one glance. "They're just complete jerks to you. … I wanted them to realize that I wasn't actually who I appeared to be," she said.
A single day of life as an obese teen was enough for Ali to develop a new sensitivity to the plight of her overweight peers. "Fatness," she said, "is just something that's made fun of. … People don't go, 'Ha ha, you're white,' or 'Ha ha you're black,' but they see a fat person and they think that they have the right to laugh at them."
Sadly, Ali's daylong experiment is an everyday reality for the nearly 10 million American kids who are obese. "I'm like the prey: people come after me because I'm fat," said 14-year-old Jon Marks, describing his experience at school. Third-grade student, Erik Destito, said, "Kids call me fatboy, fatso."
In the past 20 years, the percentage of overweight children in America has doubled. Among teens it has tripled.
If childhood obesity goes unaddressed, overweight kids will likely be plagued with a host of weight-related illnesses into adulthood, including diabetes and heart disease.
Health experts say we are in the midst of a dual epidemic they're calling diabesity. Over the past decade, childhood cases of Type II diabetes have increased tenfold because of rising rates of obesity. Today's teenagers may be the the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents.
Perhaps as damaging as the physical ailments are the psychological and emotional scars obese kids often carry with them. Fat Like Me host Meredith Vieira found Ali's experience particularly moving because Vieira herself was an overweight child. "I was 11 years old and almost 30 pounds overweight," Vieira said, "Kids called me chubby, chunky, porker, fatso. But what hurt the most was the constant ribbing of an adult family friend saying — 'I wonder when you're going to lose that baby fat.'"
Rodale Press, publisher of Prevention and Men's Health magazines, teamed up with ABCNEWS to look at the lives of America's overweight kids and provide advice to families grappling with the issue.