On May 24th I posted the blog “The Wait of the Nation” in response to the four-part HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation,” and I specifically focused on part three “Children in Crisis.” My major concern is both the blaming of individual parents as the primary problem and the marketing of obesity clinics as a primary solution. For the record, I do not believe parents have no role in children’s health and that health care clinics are not important, however, I am extremely bothered by the trend of conflating weight-loss, previously considered part of the beauty and cosmetics industry, with fast growing health care industry. I am also wanting to discuss the parents that are rarely made available for scrutiny in the popular “obesity” narrative. Ask yourself, what does the private equity firm, Bain Capital whose co-founder and previous owner is Mitt Romney, have to do with “the weight of our nation?”
I started paying closer attention to the money behind the obesity framing and solutions when Style Network aired Too Fat for 15 in the Fall of 2010. This reality series chronicled the lives of teenagers attending Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas, a weight-loss boarding school.
Dr. Oz featured one of the stars and success stories of the reality series, Tanisha Mitchell, identified initially as “supermorbidly obese” by Wellspring staff. His two-part series on childhood obesity was entitled “Win the Fight Against Obesity” followed by “Is it Child Abuse to Have a Fat Child.” To introduce the series Oz (and I do recognize that black women seemingly swear by Dr. Oz) makes this opening statement before introducing Tanisha…
If it’s child abuse to have an obese kid, then your home is the scene of the crime. And sometimes the only option is to take them out of the abusive environment. One school says they have the answer when parents run out of options.
Quick review of the Too Fat for 15: Tanisha Mitchell was diagnosed with Blounts’ Disease, a disability that made it difficulty for her to walk, as a child so she had more than a dozen surgeries on her legs throughout her childhood. She had to be home schooled, was a fantastic student, an avid reader, a loving sister, and aspired to be a justice on the Supreme Court.
Mitchell’s mother was continuously depicted as the problem/the obstacle on Too Fat for 15 Season 1 and in follow-up talk show appearances like Dr. Oz. Mitchell’s father was rarely addressed, which points to the gendered pattern of criminalizing of mothers as the blamed parents even when fathers are in the home. But here is the major point, Mitchell’s father took $26K from his 401K plan to cover the cost of one semester at the Wellspring school Dr. Oz promotes. Mitchell was at Wellspring for nearly two years. Again, this is the cost for a private boarding school, not Harvard University–there are no marble columns. In the reality series and talk shows parents are the problem and removing children from their home, according to Dr. Oz, and sending them to an obesity boarding school is marketed as a reasonable solution.
I chose to focus on the parents who are rarely made present for scrutiny, parent companies. So if we look at Wellspring Academy they are part of the larger Wellspring family, which is owned by CRC Healthgroup. The founder and owner of Wellspring is Ryan Craig, formerly of global management consultant firm McKinsey & Co not Dr. “such and such” from any part of the health care profession. Bain Capital “acquired” CRC Healthgroup in 2005 and is therefore the parent company of Wellspring Academy (the $26K per semester private boarding school for the obese). No big deal right? Wrong! A quick look at Bain Capital’s portfolio shows that they also own Dunkin Brands and from my research they previously owned Burger King and Domino’s Pizza (still have Domino’s Pizza Japan). Burger King, according to Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids and founding member of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, has spent more than $80 million in one year on child marketing alone. Marketing tactics have included the use of advergames, mobile phone ads, and celeb spokespeople like Sean “P-Diddy” Combs. Surprisingly Mitt Romney is threatening that, if elected, he will advance policies that force PBS to include advertising on shows like Sesame Street.
No big deal -parents just need to police their kids phones, online usage, radio, television, schools, convenience store visits, birthday party experiences, afterschool program snacks, Scholastic magazine ads, textbooks that teach adding with M&Ms, food commercials with embedded action movie characters, and kids movies with embedded food marketing. Also when they are done with that they should start a garden at their kids school, be on the nutrition committee, do a cooking program teaching them to cook healthy foods, start a Zumba club, and go jogging with them after work. But that’s just it, Bain Capital has not only influenced the business and marketing practices of Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, and Dunkin Brands so that they are more profitable by targeting youth with food marketing but likely keeping food service jobs low-wage with poor benefits.
They in conjunction with their big brother, Bain and Co., a global management consulting firm, take part in what Walter Keischel calls a “fiercening of capitalism” in The Lords of Strategy. In this culture of fierce capitalism, Tanisha Mitchell’s mother is depicted as the villian, yet there were 21 Bain Capital parented fast food restaurants (BK, Dunkin Doughnuts, and Domino’s Pizzas) within a five miles radius of their hometown Suitland, Maryland in 2011. Does anyone see anything wrong with Bain Capital making money in Suitland in the fast food industry and then gettin PAID in Brevard in the weight-loss/”health care industry?” I do. It may make good business sense, but it is poor “parenting” at best and morally unethical to say the least.
I’m waiting for the nation to start talking about corporate parents (especially private equity firms) and how their poor parenting is sustaining a state of crisis in America and globally in terms of unsustainable economies and incomprehensible health care. In this neoliberal narrative individual households are being held accountable even though corporate parents are functioning like invisible vacuums sucking families at every angle from “cradle to grave.” I am convinced the solutions will come from local communities, not money market investors, global consultant firms, Mitt Romney, or Wallstreet.
Here is a list of organizations doing good work with a broad health frame that I can certainly get behind.