I was an overweight kid


When I was called into my PE teacher’s office a few months after starting my second year of secondary school, I was horrified. I avoided anything to do with exercise as a matter of course: I pulled sickies on cross-country days, faked injury to get out of hockey, and refused any part in the school netball team.

When I was asked to attend the meeting during my lunch break (when I’d usually be queuing up for a slice of hot-dog pizza) my day was ruined. When I was offered a “surprise”, it got worse.

A Fitbit. And not a stylish pink strap with a rose-gold base Fitbit; a thin grey blocky watch to put on my wrist. “It’s connected to the school iPad so we can monitor your daily step count,” the teacher told 11-year-old me, smiling as if I would be impressed.

It was her attempt to help (or rather force) me, an overweight kid, to lose a few pounds. I was in the 99th centile for BMI, which means I was heavier than 99 out of 100 children my age.

I understand now she was trying to help, but I felt like a criminal being given a tag for bad behaviour. My crime was that I hated all school sports – and exercise in general.

Attending a grammar school as a child from a not-so-nice estate, my label of “pupil premium” that screamed “I get all my books for free” already made me a rarity and my feeling of otherness was not helped by the Fitbit forced on me. It was a constant reminder that I was the fat kid.

My goal, I was told, was to hit my step count: 8,000. Just eight steps 1,000 times over for seven days straight to please her for our weekly scheduled meetings to see “how I was getting on”.

In other words, eye me up to see if my clothes were any looser. They weren’t. In a rebellion, I refused to wear it most of the time, telling her it only said 2,000 steps as it was “irritating my wrist” or “getting in the way”. Did it make me do any more exercise? No. Did it make me immensely insecure? Yes. My teacher wasn’t much happier either as, after a few failed meetings and some no-shows from me, she gave up and the ugly grey bracelet was tossed in the bin.

Although this was nine years ago, the obesity crisis among children is still around, and in fact it’s worsening. The UK is estimated to have more obese children than France, Germany, Poland and Slovenia. According to The Nuffield Trust, over one in four children in year six were obese or severely obese in the 2020/21 school year.

I was one of two pupils in my year given the watch and, while I realise it was well-intentioned, I know first-hand it didn’t fix the problem. How to handle it is complex and multi-layered, and there seem to be no answers right now.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said this week that the party, if elected, would implement a 9pm watershed for “junk food” advertisements on television and ban paid-for advertising on less healthy foods on online media aimed at children.

They’re also trying to tackle the e-cigarette and vape crisis along with dental hygiene. “Healthy, happy children are not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a basic right with economic urgency,” he said. “We want the next generation to be chasing their dreams, not a dentist appointment. They should be aspiring to reach their potential, not reach a doctor.”

But the problem with tackling obesity in young people is this: you have to solve the issue without making kids hyper-aware of it. That’s not to say that when I was 11 and weighed more than I do now 10 years later, that I wasn’t aware I was big, because I was, but being constantly reminded of it made me hate my own body. And that’s not the answer to the childhood obesity issue.

My school had not been the first to voice concerns about my weight. My older sister, three years my senior, had loathed our mum when she forced her to collect me from school on my first day. To avoid the embarrassment of “walking next to her fat sister” I was told to stay at least five steps behind her at all times.

When I went to get my uniform fitted I was told by the shop assistant that my body shape would be difficult to work with. In all honesty, it probably was. I was one of the shortest in my year at the time and finding a skirt that fitted over my stomach and didn’t reach my ankles was near impossible. It wasn’t just a blazer that drowned me and a skirt far too long that walked out of that appointment though: a very unconfident and insecure kid did too.

Starmer is right in that the crisis cannot be ignored, but how we go about tackling it is of course the key. Focusing on my love of junk food never worked for me. I was banned from full-fat milk, bought Weight Watchers biscuits with my pocket money and limited myself to one a day but it never lasted. Everything I tried, I hated, and after two weeks I reverted back to old comfortable habits.

For me, the catalyst for change was finding exercise I loved – and actually took part in because I wanted to, not because it burned calories. The netball and hockey we girls were forced to play in school had never interested me – I faked a back injury for almost two years to avoid them altogether – but boxing and weightlifting did.

Exercise stopped feeling like a chore, and instead became something to enjoy and look forward to. It wasn’t all about losing weight and not being the “fat kid in class” any more – and my body and mind responded. It had a knock-on-effect on the food I was eating and gradually I dropped to a healthy weight.

How my school – and family – went about “helping” me had repercussions. I still wear a Fitbit daily now (a pink strap rose gold special) and I obsess over hitting my step count. I’ve switched from others being critical of my body to doing the dirty work myself. I’m at a healthier weight, and I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, but it doesn’t stop me analysing every part of myself daily. The one biscuit a day has turned into weighing my food out meticulously.

Looking back, I often wonder that if it had been approached differently when I was a young teenager, maybe I’d be able to eat out at a restaurant now without checking the calories first, and I wouldn’t feel the need to work out for two hours a day.

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