Did Michelle Obama Send the Wrong Message With Obesity Comments?

Michelle Obama has earned accolades for making healthy living and eliminating childhood obesity a priority as first lady. But when it came down to personalizing the issue in relation to her daughters, the remarks touched a nerve with some, and praise from others.

The first lady made the issue of healthy eating personal last week at an event in Alexandria, Va., where she kicked off a campaign addressing the issue of childhood obesity.

Video of First Lady Michelle Obama talking about obesity, kids.
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"We went to our pediatrician all the time," Obama said. "I thought my kids were perfect -- they are and always will be -- but he [the doctor] warned that he was concerned that something was getting off balance."

"I didn't see the changes. And that's also part of the problem, or part of the challenge. It's often hard to see changes in your own kids when you're living with them day in and day out," she added. "But we often simply don't realize that those kids are our kids, and our kids could be in danger of becoming obese. We always think that only happens to someone else's kid -- and I was in that position."

Obama said the doctor suggested she first look at her daughters' body mass index (BMI). The minor changes she subsequently made in their daily habits, Obama said, made all the difference.

Childhood Obesity Rates On The Rise
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The first lady's comments have stirred up the Web and medical world, and have drawn both criticism and praise. Some say Obama should not have personalized the issue and brought up her daughters. Even if it is for the greater public good, critics say, it does not bode well for their self-image. Others say the first lady used that example only to connect to Americans who may find themselves in a similar position.

The first lady's office would not comment on the criticism.

Behavior Change vs. Weight Change

Some charge that Obama's comments may be perceived as a focus on weight and dieting, which sends the wrong message to the public. The first lady should be discussing behavioral change, not weight loss, said Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, an eating disorder activist and executive director of Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Disorder (F.E.A.S.T.).

"We've confused health and weight in a way that's very confusing for children and very confusing for parents," Lyster-Mensh said. "When we speak publicly about putting our children on a diet, we start to get into weight stigma and confusing the message to families."

The focus on obesity, Lyster-Mensh said, turns this into an issue of appearances, which does not bode well for children, especially girls.

"There is simply no reason to be pushing children into weight reduction diets and that's the message parents out there get," Lyster-Mensh said. "Dieting is a gateway drug to eating disorders for those with a biological predisposition to eating disorders."

Michelle Obama's Comments Stir Debate

President Obama is also guilty of talking about his daughters' weight. In an interview with Parents magazine in November 2008, the president said, "A couple of years ago -- you'd never know it by looking at her now -- Malia was getting a little chubby."

The president then spoke about what he and the first lady did to balance their daughters' diet, and the impact "was so significant that the next time we visited our pediatrician he was amazed."

Even then, critics panned the president for commenting on the weight of Sasha, who is now 8 years old.

Some say parents talking about their daughters' weight can have a harmful impact on young girls.

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