What Does Obesity Have to Do With Custody Battles?

Some lawyers say the weight of a child or their parent should play a role in divorce settlements

Parents locked in custody battles "are increasingly hurling accusations at each other about the nutrition and obesity of their children," blaming ex-spouses for serving too much fast food and not enough physical activity, according to the Wall Street Journal. If your ex also happens to be obese, all the better! Your lawyer can make the case that he or she is "too obese to perform basic child-rearing functions," and unfit for primary custody. 

Divorce has never been pretty, but wow, did we just find a new kind of ugly in the whole sad, messy process? Let's discuss. 

When divorce happens, the one (and often only) thing both parents should be able to agree on is that they want to get through it with as little fallout on the kids as possible. "...we have concentrated not on our rancor, but on our children," writes Susan Gregory Thomas in last weekend's New York Times piece on the more cheerful rising trend of the "good divorce." In a good divorce, parents take advantage of services like divorce mediation and divorce collaboration, rather than going for the courtroom bloodbath. Thomas points to "increasing legions of exes who continue to share homes, holidays, vacations to preserve a sense of family for the children." 

And, I'm pretty sure, these exes don't talk about their kids' or ex-spouse's weight as some kind of moral judgment. Because if your goal is to protect your children's mental and physical wellbeing, I just can't see how a public dissection of their obesity is going to do it. Yes, nutrition and physical activity are essential to a kid's healthy development. And if a parent is truly neglectful on these fronts -- a subjective gray area if I've ever heard one --that may need to be factored in to custody plans. But why can't we keep the conversation focused on the parent's behaviors and how they impact a child's health -- instead of talking about a child's weight in a stigmatizing, damaging and very public way? 

As always, when you reduce the conversation about health down to the single factor of body weight, you create opportunities for prejudice and shame. That's not good for any kid's mental health, especially not one already stressed by their family's upheaval. 

And things get even stickier when angry parents decide to bring their ex-spouse's weight into the conversation. What does "too obese to perform basic child-rearing functions" even mean? Yes, yes, we've all seen the daytime talk shows about people so obese they can no longer walk or dress themselves -- but these people make up a very small and sad fraction of society. The vast majority of obese people are actually getting up and going to work every day, taking care of their kids, and being productive members of society. Many of them are doing all that in perfect metabolic health

Fortunately, the WSJ does note that, "obesity claims have to be fairly severe in order to trump both a child's right to have a close relationship with a parent and a parent's right to raise a child in the manner he or she sees fit." And thank goodness for that. Because pulling obesity into the custody debate doesn't just demean overweight people and reinforce negative stereotypes -- it asks us to rank body size against a parent's love. 

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