Fatness, misFitness and the Right Kind of Island

How, exactly, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem came to involve at least one (flying, no less) ungulate with a photoluminescent proboscis, abominable snowmen, a Christmas elf yearning to be a dentist, not to mentionmore than one lobster… is a bit hard to fathom. But however the dots connect, it’s clear that the birthday festivities of Dec. 25 now looming are the epicenter of a large community of fanciful characters enjoying colorful misadventures concentrated within, but not entirely bounded by, the Arctic circle. We welcome them back, and add to them, every year. Whatever…

In the case of the particular elf with aspirations in dentistry, we learn that since all elves are supposed to want to make toys, he is, in a word, a misfit. He finds himself, with the equally disenfranchised, indefatigable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at his side — on a quest. The quest, naturally, comes to involve a group of misfit toys on an island ruled by a winged lion (of course there’s a winged lion! The lobsters would run amok without one). But the quest is really about fitting in.

We discover — as I trust you know — that in Rudolph’s case, different means better. When Christmas in in peril, Rudolph’s glowing nose lights the way to its salvation. Rudolph was not a misfit; he was a hero waiting to happen.

We get to know the so-called “misfit” toys up close and personal, and discover that they, too, while different — are at least as good if not better than more conventional toys. Santa delivers them all to the homes of kids who get that — and love them.

And, of course, it turns out that Christmas elves have teeth and occasionally need dental care like the rest of us. Hermey the Elf establishes himself as Santa’s dentist-in-residence, and everyone, presumably, lives happily ever after.

I often wonder how so many who watch and enjoy such tales can fail to extend the all-too-obvious messages to the real world. In the real world, too, the difference between “zero and hero” can come down to being given a chance. Misfits may be perfectly fine pegs in a world of unaccommodating holes. (I leave it to your imagination if “holes” warrants a prefix… )

I am recently back from participating in a wonderful TEDx event held by Mindstream Academy, a fully-accredited boarding school for kids contending with serious threats to their health, obesity in particular. The event featured talks by a number of content experts, but the kids themselves stole the show when they sang (coached by the inimitable founder of KidTribe, Kellee McQuinn) about the pain of not fitting in, and the yearning to do so. Anyone with working ears wound up with misty eyes.

The Mindstream TEDx event was all but contemporaneous with the release of a study by colleagues at Yaleshowing that obesity is one of the leading predictors of bullying in school. I suspect we all knew this already — whether we were victims of such persecution, perpetrators of it or observers, high school can be a very cruel place. The new study adds data to reaffirm our common knowledge, and common experience.

The collation of obesity and bullying means that the very kids who may be struggling most to measure their self-worth with something other than a bathroom scale are being told daily not to bother. It means the very condition that places young people at risk for adult-onset diabetes before they can drive, let alone vote, also increases their risk for a daily dose of derision at the hands of their peers. These kids live the “addition of insult to injury” every day.

Even in a world where a majority of adults and fast-rising percentage of children are overweight or obese, we manage to make obese adolescents feel like… misfits. While the association between fatness and fitness is the subject of extensive debate in the scientific literature, the association between fatness andMISfitness is ruining lives on a daily basis. In this context, fanciful nonsense about career-challenged Christmas elves and anatomically-challenged reindeer might do us some good.

Adolescence is a challenging time under the best of circumstances. Imagine — or remember — the challenges when circumstances diverge from the ideal. Maybe your parents are unhappy, unemployed or absent. Maybe one is an alcoholic. Maybe you have a sibling with a severe illness or disability. Maybe, through no fault of your own, your skin is especially bad. Maybe you simply haven’t yet found your rhythm, and being the popular kid just doesn’t come naturally.

You might turn to drugs or alcohol, but you’re a good kid — so you stay inside the lines. There is plenty of food inside the lines, and that food provides some comfort. So you overdo it, and it overdoes you. The next thing you know, you’re the “fat kid.”

And then, the difficulties at home are compounded by relentless persecution at school. In this constant, roiling sea of abuse your pediatricians’ advice to lose weight sounds like just so much more criticism. You ease the pain — and compound it — with more eating, and feed your own downward spiral.

Such scenarios are not just real, but so common as to be mundane. Or at least they would be mundane, if every one of them did not represent the life and promise of a young person in peril. That is anything but mundane. It is profound, profoundly disquieting and a call for action.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where unassailably just and kind winged lions are hard to come by. Even if they weren’t, moving permanently to an island would not result in fitting in — it would result in getting out. No man is an island – and no child, either. These kids don’t want to escape their peers — they want to engage with them, as equals.

To that end, some time on the right island might come in handy — just as it did for those misfit toys. It would be hard for some future hero to learn his or her true worth while being told daily of their worthlessness. Sometimes the only way to fit in is to get out for a while, and get some perspective.

Just back from a visit to Mindsteam, my prior impressions are now fortified. I saw kids who didn’t fit in, all fit in with one another. Along with an infusion of expert resources, these kids were giving one another the acceptance they craved, and deserved. Just fitting in somewhere gave them a chance to find their own sense of worth, and validate one another’s.

The result? During a single semester at the academy some kids lose as much weight as winning contestants on the Biggest Loser — but without extreme methods or the unrealistic drama of reality TV. In a single semester of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, these kids also get a respite from a daily dose of abuse — and find redemption.

As we settle in with our kids for another seasonal installment of Hermey and Rudolph’s odyssey, we might do a better job of transplanting what’s obvious in the fanciful world of animated characters to the real world, where it matters. Misfits need not be misfits at all. They just need some space.

Losing fatness? Terrific. Gaining fitness? Wonderful. But overcoming misfitness to own your own sense of worth and purpose? To be, as we all should, master of one’s fate and captain of one’s soul? Priceless. And with a brief and illuminating stay on the right kind of island — actually achievable, in the real world. Flying reindeer not required.


About Dr. David Katz M.D.

Dr. Katz is the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine/Public Health; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, CT; and founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation. Known internationally for expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic disease prevention, as well as integrative care models, Katz has secured roughly $30 million in research funding, and has published well over 100 scientific papers and textbook chapters, nearly a thousand newspaper columns, and 12 books to date. He is the principal inventor of the Overall Nutritional Quality Index utilized in the NuVal™ nutrition guidance program (www.nuval.com), currently offered in approximately 1,000 supermarkets throughout the United States. Katz has been recognized three times by the Consumers Research Council of America as one of the nation’s top physicians in Preventive Medicine; was a nominee for the position of US Surgeon General in 2009; and was the 2011 recipient of the Katharine Boucot Sturgis award from the American College of Preventive Medicine, the most prestigious award the College confers – awarded for illustrious career contributions. In February 2011 Katz was named Editor-In-Chief of Childhood Obesity.
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