On the rock wall near school, a boy carved "I love Amber," tracing the letters in blue pen until they stood out thick and inky against the concrete.
Amber Wood blushed.
How could he like me? she thought. I'm fat.
"I hate my thighs and my stomach," she said one recent afternoon. "I hate that I'm 14 and worried about my weight."
And she hated getting a letter this summer from a public health organization in Little Rock informing her that she was, in the inspired language of the state, "AT RISK OF OVERWEIGHT."
At 5 feet 5 and 148 pounds, Amber Wood had exceeded the normal weight range for a 14-year-old in a Body Mass Index test ordered by state lawmakers and conducted by her school nurse.
The state of Arkansas weighed schoolchildren to combat a growing public health crisis. But what began as an effort to cut medical costs has come down, for Amber and others in her isolated Ozark mountain town, to a government-issued fat stamp.
"I don't think it's the government's place to tell a parent that your kids are overweight," said Cathi Brown, who got a letter saying her 14-year-old daughter, Cammie, weighed too much. "Where's it going to end? That's not a foot in the door, that's a foot in the house."
Across the state in Clarendon, a struggling farm town deep in the Mississippi River delta, two similar letters reached Sylvia Davis. Her 15-year-old son, Michael Newson, is 5 feet 10 and 270 pounds. Schoolmates sometimes tease her 11-year-old daughter, Evelyn, about her weight.
Davis wishes the letters had come sooner.
"It isn't like the government came in and said, "You have to do this,' " she said. "People can try to change or ignore it. It's their choice."
The law that has divided Arkansas took vending machines out of elementary schools and ordered Body Mass Index tests for children as young as 5. Body Mass Index, or BMI, is an age-specific measure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to screen children for obesity.
The state learned that 21 percent of its children are overweight and 17 percent are at risk of overweight _ in grownup terms, obese and overweight, respectively. Nearly 40 percent of Arkansas' children weigh more than they should for their age and height.
Few in Arkansas were surprised. These are kids _ and parents _ who prefer Krispy Kreme doughnuts to salads, whose dinners of fried chicken and creamed potatoes are followed by home-baked pies and cobblers. This is the land of fried catfish and chicken fried steak, fried Twinkies and fried Snickers bars, fried dill pickles and fried pie.
In letters home, the state urged parents to talk to their doctors, give their kids more fruits and vegetables, cut back on soda and limit TV, video-game playing and computer time. They advised people to "take family walks, bicycle, run or exercise with your child." Health officials spoke of diabetes and hypertension, lung problems and heart disease, cancer, strokes and shorter lives.
Some parents worried. Others felt attacked.
"Most people go and do things," said Cathy Jo Skaggs, an Oark parent. "We have picnics and parties and we cook."
In Oark, high in the hardwoods of the Ozark National Forest, kids learn to drive a truck and hunt a deer before they're out of grade school.
People survive the winters on homemade venison sausage and moonshine and bathe in the creeks in summer. They hunt bear, raccoon, wild turkey, rabbit, squirrel. There's no police department, and foster care is moving in with a neighbor.
Sixty-six people live in clapboard tin-roofed houses between the two green signs that mark Oark's city limits; about 235 live in the hills nearby.
They work in Clarksville, the nearest big town 25 miles down the mountain, making tile and engines, hauling boxes at the Wal-Mart distribution center and packing chicken breasts at the Tyson processing plant.
When the state's letters arrived in Oark, parents burned them or simply threw them away.
When kids started drinking water instead of Coke and asking for Banana Nut Crunch cereal instead of Froot Loops, adults cried foul. They weren't worried about their children, and besides, as one mother put it: "We know we have to have government, but we'd rather they just stay the hell away. We take care of our own up here."
People vote, but the governor, Republican Mike Huckabee, who lost 105 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes last year, is not popular. His efforts to consolidate schools and slim down kids are seen as big government policies from a party that promises just the opposite.
Boredom unspoken cause
Amber Wood has spent seven of her 14 years in Oark.
She loves the school because there are only 160 students and all the teachers know her. Sitting on the rock wall, gazing down at a testament to a boy's love, she says Oark is the kind of place where you can be yourself without worrying what other people think.
"I'm fortunate to have friends who don't care what I weigh," Amber says. "They like me for my personality."
Yet Oark is still part of the world. When the kids swim in the river on long, hot afternoons, Amber wears a T-shirt over her bathing suit or doesn't swim. She's too self-conscious to wear shorts in public.
She started worrying about her weight when she was 12. She sees skinny people on TV and in magazines and wants to look like them, but getting there is beyond her. She tries eating salads, but she longs for pizza, fried chicken and ice cream sundaes, especially the ones with caramel sauce from McDonald's. In the nearest big town, she and her grandmother make a point of going to Subway, but Amber craves Taco Bell.
She wishes there was an easy way to exercise. People come from all over to hike in these mountains, but Amber hasn't been able to make herself run in them all summer. Her ankles are weak, so she doesn't play sports. Her gym class last year was a couple of laps or a game of basketball for whomever wanted to play.
And then there's the food.
Hash browns, bacon, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting, biscuits, doughnuts or Reeses Puffs cereal for breakfast.
School lunches are a slice of ham or turkey with lukewarm potatoes or corn. Most days she buys chocolate milk and a Snickers ice cream bar. This year the school emptied the Coke machines and refilled them with fruit drinks and water. They stopped candy sales on the bus because the kids were eating two chocolate bars and drinking a Coke and a half before lunch. They still sell ice cream because it's milk-based.
Amber's starved after school. She snacks on Hot Pockets or a baked potato with butter and cheese, then cooks dinner _ Chicken Helpers with pasta and cream sauce, Shake and Bake, garlic bread.
She likes onion rings, but not onions.
She likes ketchup, but not tomatoes.
She likes okra, but only if it's fried.
She likes broccoli, but only if it's covered with cheese sauce.
This summer, she's been living on Philly steak sandwiches from the general store, served on thick-cut Texas toast with onion rings.
Her biggest problem is something state bureaucrats don't talk about at public health meetings or mention in their letter to parents: boredom.
Amber and her friends watch TV and instant-message each other online. She doesn't read much, and anyway, there's no library in Oark.
"There's not a lot to do around here, and when I'm bored, I eat," she says. "I just wish we had more to do in Oark to keep my mind off food."
Trying to effect a change
In Clarendon, the kids are just as bored as Amber. On Michael Newson's street, they call Clarendon "the dust."
Here in the bottomlands, heat stills the air and the lawns are as wet as the rice paddies all around them. Trains steam through every few hours on their way somewhere else, hauling cars and animal feed and shaking the furniture in the neat gray house where Michael and his family live.
Michael wears size 17 shoes and practices kicks with the cheerleaders. He wants to play his trumpet like a jazz musician, but for now, he plays Wipe Out and My Girl at school football games.
Michael likes being outside. He especially likes soccer, but when he and some other kids played a street game, someone kicked the ball high and hard and broke a window. They haven't played since. Most days, he's indoors on the phone with cousins and friends in Chicago. He listens to music and picks out hip-hop tunes on his trumpet. His sister Evelyn sits in the living room, channel surfing.
In Clarendon, people say they want help _ a community center, a gym, even a park. But there's just dust and two dollar stores, the White River Cafe ("Good Home Cookin' "), the Lions Den drive-in dairy bar and an E-Z Mart.
Michael says he has better things to do than play football (which is what people here automatically expect of a kid his size). He'd rather be playing his trumpet, listening to the Lebanese and Latin beats of Shakira or watching Italian and French movies on satellite TV. He has asthma and sometimes gets winded just marching across the field with his trumpet.
Sylvia Davis, Michael's mother, knows the extra weight doesn't help her son's breathing. But she's more worried about her 11-year-old daughter, Evelyn, who, "if she keeps on the way she's going, is not going to be able to walk up those front stairs."
Davis, 39, has been big all her life. At 13, she weighed 180 pounds. Today she weighs 227. No one gave her trouble about it when she was younger and she regrets it.
"How can I teach them to control their weight when I can't control mine?" she asked. "I would like to be able to show them, but I can't show them. That makes me feel like a horrible mom."
A couple of months ago, when she noticed that Evelyn was finally beginning to eat salads, Davis made what she calls "a life change."
She threw out the chocolate chip cookies, Doritos and Lays. She cut a chocolate cake down the middle and gave half to a relative. She started buying whole wheat bread instead of white, 2 percent milk instead of whole. She stocked up on vegetables, salads and popcorn.
Shopping like this is hard work, and it's expensive. On a recent afternoon, Davis broke down and bought a loaf of white Wonder bread, just 98 cents instead of $1.79 for whole wheat. She gives Evelyn a dollar for every hour she spends on the Gazelle fitness machine in the living room.
Arkansas families are the second poorest in the country, and you can feel the pinch in Clarendon. Davis drives 45 miles every day to a factory where she makes military boots. Her husband works the night shift in a grain processing plant 20 miles away.
Parents bring home fast food because it's cheaper than cooking. It costs less to buy three boxes of cereal and a gallon of milk than to shop for a week's worth of meals. When it's a choice between buying junk or starving, junk always wins.
"The poor man's going to eat what he can get in front of him. He don't care," said Willie Harvey, the town dog catcher and a father of two teenage girls.
On a recent day, one of Davis' co-workers was late and broke into a run on the factory floor. It made her think how nice it would be to run easily, without feeling dizzy or out of breath.
She wants that for her kids, but she knows the stakes are higher for Evelyn because she's a girl. Boys and men can get away with being overweight, Davis says. Girls can't.
Evelyn, who wears sparkly wood beads in her braids and sings Amazing Grace to cheer herself up, is trying to change. She won't say how much she weighs. This year, she has vowed to walk to and from school, eat less candy and use the Gazelle more _ for the pocket money if nothing else.
People tell her she's pretty, but she doesn't believe them.
"I look in the mirror and I be ashamed of myself," she says quietly.
In Oark, Amber Wood knows what that feels like.
Three boys say they love her, but they're not the boys she likes. Those boys don't notice her. If she were skinnier, she's sure that would change.
The other day, she got contact lenses. She wore them with a new outfit _ a pink flowered shirt and tight, cropped jeans. She has gained weight, so these days she's especially self-conscious. But her older brother, Will, a blonde, muscular 17-year-old much admired by the girls of Oark, told Amber she looked gorgeous.
"I'm going to have to get a stick and beat the guys off you," he said.
As if to prove how light she was, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Amber hung there for a few minutes beaming and begging unconvincingly to be put down.
Vanessa Gezari can be reached at (727) 893-8803 or vgezarisptimes.com.
BMI is used differently with children and adults
In children and teens, Body Mass Index is used to assess underweight, overweight and risk for overweight. As children grow, their level of body fat changes. Also, girls and boys differ in their levels as they mature. This is why BMI for children, also referred to as BMI-for-age, is gender and age specific.
Body Mass Index
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created BMI-for-age gender-specific charts that contain a series of curved lines indicating specific percentiles. Healthcare professionals use the following established percentile cutoff points to identify underweight and overweight in children.
This tool can provide a reference for adolescents that can be used beyond puberty, compares well to laboratory measures of body fat and can be used to track body size
To print a chart to plot your child's BMI-for-age, go to www. sptimes. com/ links.
Figuring out your weighty heart risks
For every increment of 1 on the body mass index _ a height-to-weight comparison _ risk for heart failure increases 5 percent for men and 7 percent for women, a new study shows. Figure out your score here:
Your weight in pounds divided by your height in inches divided by your height in inches times 703 = Body Mass Index score
If you are 5 feet 5 and weigh 130 pounds, your BMI would be 22.
Normal weight is a score of 25 or less
Overweight is 26 - 30
Obese is a score of more than 30
Sources: New England Journal of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control