Kindergartner's book aims to educate other kids about obesity, bullying
Girl says, "you can't judge a book by its cover."
By Dawn Turner Trice Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Children began teasing LaNiyah Bailey about her weight two years ago when she was in prekindergarten. She told me they called her "fatty-pants" and "big, fat elephant girl." Some kids said LaNiyah's distended abdomen looked like she was carrying a baby. One adult, a former day-care provider, even called her "fatso."
LaNiyah's mother, LaToya White, said that although most adults don't say anything, many do stare when she and her daughter are in the grocery store. LaNiyah is now 6 and weighs 115 pounds, about 70 pounds more than the average child her age.
"People look at me like, 'What are you feeding her?"' said White, 34, who works for a property management company. "When we're in the store, they look in my shopping cart expecting to find a bunch of junk food. But she's always eaten healthy."
So, as this west suburban Berkeley, Ill., child finds herself at the intersection of a couple of hot issues — the country's epidemic of childhood obesity and the destructive effects of bullying — her parents are determined to make sure neither erodes her self-esteem.
White said that she and LaNiyah's father, Songo Bailey, first noticed their daughter was gaining an abnormal amount of weight when she was 3 years old. The family met with a nutritionist who put LaNiyah on a strict 1,800-calorie-per-day diet. They also hired a personal trainer, but LaNiyah's weight continued to increase. She gained 30 pounds during 2009.
"The personal trainer said, 'Something is wrong,"' White said. "Outside of the training, she's a very active girl. She's taken dance classes, and she has a treadmill at home. And she runs around the house with our puppy."
White and Bailey took their daughter to doctor after doctor, and they blamed LaNiyah's weight on bad dietary habits.
"One doctor told me, right in front of LaNiyah's face, 'She's just fat because you're feeding her the wrong things,"' White said. "She became so self-conscious that she doesn't wear jeans at all. She wears sweatpants, and I buy her cute tops. Or she'll wear dresses because she's a girlie-girl."
Outraged and frustrated, LaNiyah's parents continued taking her to doctors until one ordered an X-ray, which showed LaNiyah had a swollen colon. Other tests have shown evidence that she may have a hormonal abnormality.
She now is being treated by an endocrinologist and a gastroenterologist.
"We want people to know that childhood obesity isn't always food-induced," said Bailey, 33, a firefighter.
Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital and a member of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, said it's unusual for children to be obese because of issues not directly related to overeating. But it does happen.
"By far the most common cause of childhood obesity is the imbalance between calories in and the amount of energy expended," said Unger, who is not LaNiyah's pediatrician. "But even when a child's weight gain is because of medical reasons, the goal is to get it under control so there aren't other adverse physical and psychological effects."
White said that while LaNiyah's health was her biggest concern, she worried about how the weight was affecting LaNiyah's self-confidence. So she and her daughter decided to write about it. The result is LaNiyah's new book, "Not Fat Because I Wanna Be," self-published by her mother. (Her website is www.notfatbecauseiwannabe.com.)
LaNiyah said it explains how the teasing made her feel as well as how "you can't judge a book by its cover."
"I came home crying to my mom and dad when I got teased and bullied," said LaNiyah, who is an effervescent and cute little girl. "I want people to learn that bullying isn't cool to do to other people."
White said that when she talked with her daughter about what to put in the book, the way LaNiyah expressed her feelings broke her mother's heart.
"I showed what I had to the editor (whom White hired), and she said that we had to make it more fun to appeal to kids," White said. "But when I read it to my daughter, she said, 'I don't want it to be fun. It's not funny."'
Bailey said that when LaNiyah told him she was writing a book, he was surprised by how motivated and self-possessed she was.
"I started to cry because I knew what she had been through and I was so impressed with her," he said. "As a firefighter, I'm obligated to protect people and it doesn't matter what they look like. It hurts me that people don't have that same decency or kindness toward my child."