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."
Nearly 10 Million Obese Kids
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.
Teasing at School — and at Home
In her daylong experiment, Ali spoke of how painful it was to be teased by other kids. Surprisingly, overweight children often face ridicule at home as well as school.
"It's one thing when children are teasing you on the playground. It's a little easier to walk away …" says Beth Braun, Psychological Director of Kidshape, a California-based weight management program for children and their families. "But it is so much more painful when it comes from your mother or your father or your sister or your brother," she says.
Chrystal Jonson, a 10-year-old girl from Los Angeles, is overweight and was struggling to deal with teasing at home as well as school.
The oldest of seven children, Chrystal was the only overweight child in her family, and she felt particularly isolated.
Her parents, Christina and Larry Jonson, realized they were contributing to Chrystal's problem. "She got stares. I made jokes," Larry Jonson admits, adding, "I'm her father and I was wrong."
Christina Jonson says she sat her husband down and told him: "This is not her fault. This is our fault. And we … owe it to her to get it right."
The Jonsons sought a solution at Kidshape, which offers programs for families of overweight children as young as three. Braun and other staff members work with parents to teach them how to tackle the problem as a family, and not isolate the overweight child.
Christina Jonson was keenly aware her reactions to Chrystal's weight made the problem worse. "It's hard to say as a mom, but you pull back because you don't want to have to say, 'My child is overweight and they have a problem.' And so you don't hug as much as you used to, and you don't kiss and hold hands as much."
Braun says this is a common reaction, and kids feel the rejection from their parents. When parents make insensitive comments about their child's weight, Braun says, "Their body image changes. They start to see themselves as fat. It is the most lonely, terrible, sad feeling." Braun cited reports in which obese children have been shown to exhibit a sadness that rivals that of teen cancer patients.
One strategy Braun advises families to follow is to decide to get healthy together. "It's deciding that you don't want to be like this anymore. That you don't want your child to be in pain, that you don't want to be in pain."
Schools on the Front Line
Schools are on the front line of the childhood obesity epidemic:
feeding children, involving them in athletics, and teaching them about health. Increasingly, they are taking matters into their own hands with new weaponry in the war on weight.
But their efforts haven't always been welcomed by parents. When Pennsylvania's East Penn School District sent home letters to hundreds of parents telling their children had a weight problem, it stirred up a storm of controversy in the small town of Emmaus.
Angry parents said they felt the school was intruding into a private matter. Krista Destito, whose son Eric, a third-grade student, was one of the overweight children who received a letter, said, "I was shocked. It infringes on your motherhood, you know, someone other than you or your doctor points out that your child is overweight.
Schools routinely screen students for scoliosis, and vision and hearing problems. Because our culture is so sensitive to weight and body image, experts say, parents often refuse to admit their child has a problem. "This is like a social taboo," George Ziolkowski, Director of Pupil Services for the East Penn School District, said, "You can talk about so many other things, but you can't talk about an individual's weight where potentially it could be doing a lot of harm."
Prevention Managing Editor Rosemary Ellis said a survey by her magazine found that parents were "either not aware of the huge health risks that are implied with obesity or they're not believing that it really affects their kids." Often, the parents' reaction is tied to their own weight issues. "Two-thirds of the parents we surveyed who have obese kids," Ellis said, "were obese themselves."
In order to help overweight kids make lifestyle changes, their parents may have to make them themselves, Ellis says.
"If there's a magic cure for childhood obesity, it's parental awareness and involvement," Ellis said.