Fat, Fillyjonk, Media

Living in fear

I’m sure no regular readers still harbor doubts as to whether fatness is used as an excuse to shame and terrorize children. Just in case you needed a reminder, though, here’s the Washington City Paper’s story “The Battle Over Heavy T.” It’s the story of a young boy who is constantly being hunted down, for the hideous crime of wanting to live at home with his mother and eat more than 800 calories a day. And it reads like something out of Orwell.

In late March, police and CFSA workers showed up to take Terrell away. When they arrived, Terrell was hanging out inside his apartment with his cousin. The two boys raced out the back door. Terrell ran next to the taller boy, trying to stay in his cousin’s shadow so the police wouldn’t see him.

The ruse didn’t work. An officer snagged Terrell and escorted him to the front yard where a bald guy from CFSA waited with a car.

At the agency’s Sixth Street office near L’Enfant Plaza, Terrell sat surrounded by workers “talking their jibber jabber shit.” It seemed like they knew everything about him. They peppered him with questions. What have you been eating? How often do you go to school? How often do you go to the YMCA?

There’s a moralizing tone to the article, a gentle incredulousness that this child was unhappy in a hospital program where he was initially restricted to 800 calories a day, or that he dares to think he isn’t ugly. It’s not snide, but I get the sense that the author doesn’t know what story he’s telling — the story of a child victimized for his size and a mother stretched too thin to help him, or the story of a dumb shit who brought trouble on himself with his appetite. I know how I read it, though. Honestly, I think there’s only one way to read a story that starts with a fat kid peering out into the street, wondering if the car that just pulled up is there to take him away.

Clearly, there are several things going on in Terrell’s story that make it more complicated than just “fat kid gets brutalized by Child Services.” The kid does not eat well, and he eats a lot. He seems to have historically been hungrier than most kids his age — he’s typically bottomless for a 15-year-old, but according to his mother, he’s been insatiably hungry for a long time, even before he was put on his punishing diet. His mom seems to have a drug problem and maybe can’t give him the attention he needs, though being a working single mom would alone prevent her from monitoring his every bite. These are facts. But so are these: Terrell is on steroids for asthma, which can cause extreme weight gain — something that’s being basically ignored. His model for “acceptable” eating so far has been a program where he lost a pound and a half a DAY. His mother has been threatened with jail time if she doesn’t give him up. He is failing his classes because he’s scared to leave the house and go to school. He couldn’t go out and play — or go work out at the Y — if he wanted to, without being dragged back to the starvation-based weight loss program against his will.

Here’s the end of the article, which I think about sums it up:

Most likely, life for Terrell will once again be his second-floor bedroom. He will not go back to school. When the knock comes on the door, he’ll hide. Before he goes outside, he’ll scan the street.

Terrell walks over to his mother. She lifts his shirt and hugs him around his belly.

“All ’cause you want to be chunky,” she says.

41 thoughts on “Living in fear”

  1. Hello – I’m delurking on this post in particular fo 2 reasons:

    1. There’s something about this Terrell kid that screams Prader-Willi syndrome, which is a genetic abnormality. Wiki or Google it – there’s a lot of info available. Has no one, none of the doctors, even considered that? No one has considered that it might not be anyone’s fault? Argh.

    2. I linked to your site in my LJ. When I link to other peoples’ sites I generally comment on the next post they make. So here it is. Hi.

  2. Thank you, Julie! I knew there was some genetic abnormality that fit the bill, but I couldn’t remember which. Yeah, I was reading the whole article going “people, something is going ON with this kid” — and it wasn’t even a particularly sympathetic article, which makes it all the more stunning that nobody involved has noticed it.

    Not, I hasten to add, that the whole story would be even remotely acceptable if this was just a fat kid who ate a lot. But I really felt like the constant hunger, if being accurately reported and not skewed because people pay 10x more attention to every morsel of food going into a fat kid’s mouth, indicated something deeper than poor food choices. The possibility that Child Services is ignoring a serious condition in favor of traumatizing this child and his family just adds a layer of pathos.

    Jon, it was me this time — I wish our template let you put a photo like Shakesville does!

  3. Thanks for covering this, FJ. And yeah, stories like these (sadly, it’s far from the only one) really point up the absurdity of assuming that fatness is just a matter of lack of control. As far as I know, all of the kids who have been taken from their parents because of their weight have had something really messed up going on with their bodies — whether it’s Prader-Will Syndrome or something else — and the forced weight loss programs end up being useless for them anyway.

    Once again, insisting that weight loss will cure everything gets in the way of treating actual health problems.

  4. And I love the tone that implies that his poor grammar, his family’s social status, his asthma, and his difficulties in school are all somehow because of his weight. No mention of the fact that growing up in a low socio-economic condition with all that stress, and serious health problems may be part of the *cause* of his increased weight.

  5. No, he does not have Prader-Willi syndrome — he has none of the physical characteristics, nor is he even that big! This is nothing more than typical clueless CFSA bureaucrats with prejudice and classism. This poor kid. What they’re doing to him is criminal.

    Far too many fat kids — whose bodies aren’t messed up or defective — are taken by child protective services but their stories rarely make the news.

  6. Just FYI, to Sandy and others: The first picture of Terrell in the article is after he lost over 200 pounds (and gained back over 60) on his torturous starvation program. (Which, uh, was after he lost 75 pounds and gained back more.) At first, when reading the article, I couldn’t even understand how this kid had even attracted the attention of authorities. It does seem that his typical size is quite large, though.

    This in no way makes his treatment any less criminal. It is absolutely shameful to frighten and hound a child this way. I just know that other people besides Sandy and me are looking at the article and going “shit, this child is NOT THAT BIG.” He was pretty big. That doesn’t make the situation any less awful or absurd.

  7. Thanks for chiming in, Sandy. And I should have clarified I meant ALL the kids who have made the news with similar stories, off the top of my head. That was a really dumb way for me to put it.

  8. You misunderstood. He has none of the physical and mental traits of prader willi. I did read the story and understand the weights he has had. Even 300 pounds for a teen does not make a defective body. Throughout history there have been extremes of size. NO CHILD can become that size simply by “overeating” if it isn’t in their genes or other rare physiological things going on.

    His size is irrelevant to the abuse he’s received; the prejudice, ignorance and classism exhibited; and the egregious spin in this story (just given the rhetoric should lead every reader to suspect they are not getting the full story).

  9. PS. We know to never believe everything we read. When reporters describes fat people’s eating, it’s always spun as overeating gargantuan amounts of junk. A media story does not make a medical record, as we all know. :)

  10. Sandy, as I said several times, I was clarifying for all readers who might have had the same initial response that I did, i.e. “that kid’s barely fat, why did they even target him in the first place.”

    When reporters describes fat people’s eating, it’s always spun as overeating gargantuan amounts of junk.

    Yup. I mention this above.

  11. Actually, steroids used to treat asthma can nearly double body weight. I grew up on them and lost a bunch when I went off of them without trying. This is a well established medical fact. However, there are asthma drugs far superior to steroids that he likely couldn’t afford without the right insurance. Also, people of his SEC are more likely to be prescribed less effective or older medications, especially if the family can’t afford newer ones.

    CPS should absolutely not be allowed to remove children from their homes based on fatness, just as they shouldn’t be for thinness. If a child of either body type is MALNOURISHED, that’s a different story.

    The really twisted thing here is that an adequately nourished child was removed so that the state could deliberately malnourish him. Sick, sick, sick.

  12. I agree about the class issues – would this ever happen to a middle-class family? And Sandy you’re probably right about him not having anything genetically wrong, but on rereading WOW does he have some major complex medical history to deal with.

    Another re-read thought: Thin and normal weight children have life-threatening asthma attacks, too. I have transcribed countless ER notes on children who have had the same thing happen – of all weights, fat, thin and in-between. May he have been mismanaged all along because he was fat?

    The bullying and harassment from The System are deplorable. This poor kid embodies so many potential prejudices. It’s obvious his mother loves him but seems at her wits end – she has both my pity and my sympathy. What is she supposed to do?

  13. That’s a pretty crazy story. He needs to stop hiding though, and just realize that he does have some type of health concern. Being hungry all the time like that…there’s something wrong. I understand he’s scared, and I think people who are wanting to help him need to try and approach him in a way that is less scary and just let him know that they just want to find out what is wrong with him, so that they can help him. If I were him, I’d want to know what the hell is up with my body too.

  14. ashleysguide, nobody is proposing to find out what’s wrong with his body. They are proposing to return him to the program where he was being given 800 calories a day. That would be torture for you or me — imagine what it would be like for a kid who’s always hungry.

  15. I just read the comments over at the article itself. One commenter made an excellent point: why is child services taking away a child for being overweight, while leaving anorectic and bulimic children with their parents (keeping in mind these kids are often well-off & white)? The best place for these kids (overweight or underweight) is usually (admittedly not always) with their parents. This story really highlights the class & race problems that are prevalent in many government agencies (as Julie Neff said above). It also drives home that in our society it appears to be OK to underweight while it is almost criminal to be overweight.

  16. This story breaks my fuckin’ heart. That poor kid.

    And as others have mentioned – the class issues involved here are INSANE. Just… this is a 15-year-old kid. This mother is going to be sent to jail for not being able to monitor her child’s every move and morsel, when government officials can’t even hang onto him long enough to drag him back to that hospital. Meanwhile, middle- and upper-class parents are being chided for being “helicopter parents” and never giving their children room to handle problems on their own.

    I have to agree with other commenters – it seems pretty obvious this kid has other health issues going on. It’s absolutely inhumane that these people are going to devastate his entire family because of his waist size without ever giving real attention to what’s actually /causing/ this.

    P.S. God, I feel for his mom. Seriously – a kid who is so iron-willed and defiant that he is going to get out of an officer of the court’s car has got to be hell-on-wheels to parent. I don’t say this to meant he’s a bad kid – he sounds like a pretty good kid, really – but rather that wow… he’s got a VERY strong personality. And as a mom of a kid who has a similar sort of willful stubbornness to him? I really feel for this mom. I really really do. I wish there was something I could do, y’know?

  17. I agree that maybe he has Prader-Willi Syndrome, and how the hell can they ignore that he is on steroids? There are so many medications that cause weight gain and I am pretty sure that steroids cause some of the fastest and most extreme kinds. And 800 calories a day is shocking! I’m 22 years old and my doctor once put me on a 1200 calorie a day diet, and then 1100, and then 1000, but eventually I got hypoglycemia and other problems and I’m a fully grown adult, not a growing teenager going through puberty- AND FEMALE- and my nutritionist told me that 1500 calories should have been the bare minimum for me to be eating.

    At first I thought this was a story about a very young kid that was in danger of being taken from his parents. I’ve heard of 2 stories like that.

  18. Julie, I can vouch for you on the asthma thing. I’m the same height as the boy in the story (4’11) and after I had pneumonia when I was 13 I developed asthma. At that time I probably weighed about 100.

  19. According to the article this kid got so big he couldn’t manage a 5-minute walk to school without resting, couldn’t manage school’s stairs twice a day, crawled on all fours up the stairs in his own house. I’m not seeing classist anti-fat prejudice in calling something wrong there.

  20. Laurette, if you read the comments it’s pretty obvious that nobody here is denying that this kid has a problem. What we’re denying is that forcibly removing him from his home and/or threatening to put his mother in jail if he consumes more than 800 calories a day is probably neither the most effective nor the most humane way to deal with that problem. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that the state’s bullheadedness in this manner is making things demonstrably worse.

    In the beginning he was just a poor kid who couldn’t stop gaining weight. Now he’s essentially a fugitive from the law. Which is unconscionable, considering he hasn’t done a thing wrong other than refuse to be forcibly starved. He’s no longer attending school, he’s afraid to leave his house, and on a psychological level getting healthy and/or losing weight are now inextricably linked to punishment and shame. Not to speak of the fact that nobody’s demonstrated any interest in actually helping to identify and solve his underlying problems, everybody just wants to starve the damn kid. It’s just wrong.

    On another note, I can’t help but be amused at the fact that this “agency” that is so invested in getting this kid to slim down? They keep taking him to lunch at freakin’ McDonalds. Talk about mixed messages.

  21. Are they trying to find out what caused him to be out of breath, excluding his asthma which is NOTHING to do with this.

    The feeling of torture that you invoke in a person or child with a voracious appetite when you starve them has to be experienced to be believed, it can traumatise in and of itself, which I think explains his running away, being caught =starvation=TORTURE. His is a fight/flight mechanism that has been severely overstimulated.

  22. I’m not seeing classist anti-fat prejudice in calling something wrong there.

    Missing the Point Award of the Day!

    O/T: Nik E. Poo, I actually have ADD, and so do some of my readers, so I’m not on board with the whole “Ritalin is teh devil” thing. I do suspect ADD is misdiagnosed plenty of times, but until they figure out that “spacey” girls might have a genuine disorder just as surely as hyperactive boys might, I’m sure not going to call it overdiagnosed. (I wasn’t diagnosed until after I graduated from college. With a 1.56 GPA.) And Ritalin is really a very safe drug, as they go.

  23. Yeah, the Ritalin thing is tough. I used to work at NIMH for a guy who was doing a double-blind study on ADHD medications. While I was there, we were looking at girls, and we had several girls going to school full-time in Building 10 so we could observe them. Some of the girls were kinda full of beans, maybe a little more of a handful one week than another, maybe not great at the tests I was giving them but clearly bubbly and bright and enthusiastic — the kind of kids where you say “why should they change? Why shouldn’t it be the school that changes for them?” Some of the kids, it was so incredibly obvious when it was placebo week — they just went completely out of control, screaming and fighting. We couldn’t wait to get them back on meds. Now, maybe ADHD wasn’t the whole story (the girl I’m thinking of in particular was probably post-traumatic as well). But some kids were clearly non-standard learners, and others needed more help. I do think, though, that unilateral medication is incredibly short-sighted and basically a terrible idea.

    Mindy, the eating disorder metaphor is an interesting one, too. Certainly if a young white girl suddenly dropped a ton of weight, people would look into whether she was anorectic before removing her from her family. I wonder if the same thing would apply if she were black? Would the authorities even consider anorexia, or would they assume her parents had been neglecting her into malnutrition? Everybody is 100% right that this goes well beyond just fatphobia — there’s a basic indictment of poor black parents going on. The part where the author, in what read to me as a supercilous tone, pointed out that the mother just couldn’t pay attention to everything Terrell eats… that really got me.

    About tone: To be fair, the CP has recently been trying to remain very neutral in their cover stories, which can be infuriating when the story is one that brings up passions in the readers. So it’s possible that I’m reading judgment where there is none, just because I’m not seeing a bias for my side.

    As for metaphors, the one that occurs to me is my cousin who spent her childhood injecting herself in the stomach with human growth hormone because she was short. I was about to start writing about it here, but I think it’s a post in and of itself…

  24. Laurette, he couldn’t walk not because of his size, but because he has Blount’s Disease. It is a rare genetic condition that is much more common among Blacks and makes it excruciatingly, horribly painful to walk. His legs are uneven and bowed. You’ll note that the condition was no different even at his smallest size. Most of the fat kids who have this that I’ve seen are treated terribly, suffer terribly, and rarely even have proper pain management because people want to blame them for this condition because they’re fat, although thin kids get it, too.

    He also does not have Prader Willi — he has none of the physical features, nor is there any indication he is retarded (which accompanies it) as he got As and Bs in school.

    There is a lot going on which a newspaper article is not going to give any semblance of the truth, but for anyone to use his size to blame him for overeating or his mother for abuse to take him from the home is classism and prejudice.

  25. There is a lot going on which a newspaper article is not going to give any semblance of the truth, but for anyone to use his size to blame him for overeating or his mother for abuse to take him from the home is classism and prejudice.

    Exactly. Thanks, Sandy.

  26. Laurette said, “According to the article this kid got so big he couldn’t manage a 5-minute walk to school without resting, couldn’t manage school’s stairs twice a day, crawled on all fours up the stairs in his own house. I’m not seeing classist anti-fat prejudice in calling something wrong there.”

    I wanted to point out that poorly controlled asthma could cause all of these things, irrespective of this boy’s weight. This is a classic example of why a lot of fat people don’t want to go to the doctor. Every problem is blamed on being fat and you are told that everything would be great if you would just loose weight. This kid needs a complete workup by a good pediatrician in consultation with an endocrinologist and a pulmonologist/allergist/immunologist. But it is much easier to imprison him in the weight loss unit.

  27. I was not making a point about Ritalin. My point was rather that parents were being charged with child neglect for not giving it to their kids. They were in real danger of losing custody. Which seems somewhat similar to the Terrell situation. Difference being, in one case you go after the parents, in the other … you go straight at the kid. I’m not a fan of any institution that seeks to control (standardize) behavior … no matter how it is disguised.

  28. I wonder if he has any out of state relatives that he can go stay with until he turns 18? That would be the best solution.

  29. (((kateharding))) Right back at ya!

    I really feel for that kid. It seems his mom is pretty accepting … so maybe he has enough encouragement to get by. I sure hope so.

  30. Here’s what really worries me about people in this country:

    We’re very “health conscious.” So health conscious, in fact, that we know EXACTLY what causes health problems 100% of the time, and can, in ALLcases, intervene to save the sufferer’s life. And if said sufferer won’t be intervened with willingly, well, then by jove we have handcuffs and containment facilities to deal with them.

    Of course, being as health conscious as we are, and knowing EXACTLY the cause and cure for EVERY ailment, we would NEVER waste our money or time, or risk our lives, or the lives of our children pursuing pseudoscience “Woo” therapies! No! Mass quantities of Americans/Europeans would NEVER not vaccinate their children due to a completely baseless claim that vaccinations cause autism, NOR would they subject their austic children to potentially harmful chelation therapy to remove the “teh merkury.” No! That would CERTAINLY cause a rise in incredibly dangerous childhood diseases! And what’s more, we most DEFINATLY would not purse dangerous crack-pot cures for cancer, AIDS, or whatever the deadly disease of the day happens to be!

    Of course, most importantly of all, we are a CONSISTENT society. We not only remove fat children from their abusive parents to starve them back into health, but we also remove starving children from their uncaring parents to fatten them back up! We won’t tolerate people refusing to vaccinate their children and leaving them suceptible to horrific diseases! And we ABSOLUTLEY, in no WAY, SHAPE, or FORM, would allow parents to subject their children to unsound quakery to treat these deadly diseases without punishment. And the governement of Virginia most emphatically did NOT just pass a law that entitles parents to do just that.

    Sorry about the caps – it just wouldn’t be a rant without them. I’ve just been constantly irritated lately with the stories of fat children being taken away for their health while new age nut-cases like Jenny McCarthy go on television and spew baseless vile nonsense encouraging people not to vaccinate their children – something that can and WILL injure their health.

    I’m done now. That hurt my head. :)

  31. Amanda, that was outstanding!

    I’ve just been constantly irritated lately with the stories of fat children being taken away for their health while new age nut-cases like Jenny McCarthy go on television and spew baseless vile nonsense encouraging people not to vaccinate their children – something that can and WILL injure their health.

    Well, even if it doesn’t injure them individually (which it might not, since enough kids are vaccinated, the vulnerable ones are unlikely to run into those diseases), if enough people don’t vaccinate their kids on the say-so of Jenny McCarthy, et al, we’ll have a REAL public health crisis on our hands — as opposed to, say, the obesity epidemic.

    Even if fat did cause all the problems they claim, it wouldn’t be a crisis for anyone but insurance companies. But THAT is a “public health crisis,” whereas refusing to vaccinate kids against diseases that used to kill them by the truckload is no problem whatsoever.

  32. well… as an autistic i have to say, i’d rather be autistic then not :) it’s the same way with us as with the fatties. it’s genetics, we come in different shapes and forms with different genes. and thank god we do :)

    and no vaccine gives any autism at all. that’s just plain bullshit.

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