Some of you public health and social marketing gurus have likely already come across the recent slew of ads in Georgia, published by an organization called Strong4Life, that are ostensibly part of an effort to curb childhood obesity. A lofty goal, indeed, but a misguided approach, the criticisms of which have already begun. The images are pictures of overweight and obese children with a variety of captions, including “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not,” and “Fat may be funny to you, but it’s killing me,” and “Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line.”
Shaming rarely works as a strategy for behavior change. It’s been shown in efforts ranging from drug use behavior to HIV-prevention goals and marketing campaigns. If you click on the images in the Strong4Life campaign you get taken to video spots of these children, who seem burdened by sadness and depression (which can be both causes of and side effects of being overweight – exacerbating these emotional states does not help in weight loss endeavors). Recognizing if one is at an unhealthy weight is an essential step towards healthy weight loss, but the children do not appear buoyed by information, support, and new ideas on ways to be healthy. They seem downtrodden and embarrassed, the very characteristics that a shaming and body-bullying culture easily pounce on and cultivate. The video of Bobby, which portrays a mother who appears shamed by her son’s question doesn’t make me want to hit the gym or eat a platter of vegetables. Instead, the voyeuristic quality of the mock confessions feels more than a bit exploitative and it triggers a gut reaction of sympathy and protectiveness, making me want to yank the camera from the hands of Strong4Life. It’s like they took a message from the Jillian Michaels’ school of adding insult to injury, splashing in an additional dose of fear and intimidation, and expecting that this will result in a lifelong substantial increase in meaningful self-esteem.
The well-developed criticisms of this campaign point out that not only does shaming and negative marketing not induce healthy behavior change, but that these ads do nothing educationally. One girl near-tearfully admits that she gets made fun of at school because she’s fat, and the video slams down a tag line of “being fat takes all the fun out of being a kid” before fading out. While the Strong4Life campaign has a “Get Started” tab offering facts about nutrition and screen time and physical activity, the impact of the original image has already been made. Advertising relies on quick one-liners, on stark imagery, and emotional reactions. In this case, what we see is a tag line reiterating that this girl is not a normal kid, a solitary image of an overweight girl connected to an emotional plea on her part of loneliness and victimization. It’s powerful all right, but not empowering. The ad emphasizes fat loss, heightening the importance placed on size, instead of cultivating an interest in healthy lifestyles and appreciation of the fact that people come in different sizes and can be equally healthy. Critics of the appreciation-of-all-sizes approach say it borders on supporting obesity, which I see as short-sighted. Very high weight status can certainly indicate other problems, like diabetes, early heart and respiratory problems, and difficulties engaging in physical activity. But it’s also essential to make sure that the message that larger sizes are universally unhealthy is quashed, and it’s vital to promote instead that appreciating people of all sizes is essential – and more importantly, that valuing people regardless of size is a priority. This is a topic that deserves that kind of nuance. I would welcome ads that excitedly show kids engaging in active lifestyles, enjoying sports and enjoying healthy, full diets – creating characters in ads that viewers want to emulate, as opposed to characters that viewers are meant to distance themselves from or who are meant to be repelling, is not only good business sense but inclusive and supportive. These ads further emphasize and underscore the cultural norm categories of “normal weight kids are normal” and “overweight kids are not normal and therefore not ok” – this certainly won’t help curb teasing or bullying in this arena. And since we do know that consistent, positive social support is one of the key factors in healthy behavior change, it’s obvious why public health experts met this series with skepticism. And here’s what else we know – healthy lifestyle changes significantly decrease mortality, regardless of baseline body mass index. Changes in fitness level are what alter all-cause mortality, not changes in BMI.
The response that these ads are cultivating “important conversation” is somewhat moot. It may get people talking, and it hopefully it will encourage media platforms with a larger audience than this blog to come out with constructive, evidence-based, supportive tips and strategies for a healthy lifestyle – but the fact remains that these ads are contributing to the negative, body-shaming noise that fuels so much of popular media and it remains that the effect can be really damaging and counter-productive at the outset. Individuals who ultimately are successful at losing large amounts of unhealthy weight (or who more consistently use condoms, for example) do so not merely because someone called them fat (or because they knew someone who became infected with HIV) – this has happened many times over to individuals seeking or needing to enact behavior change. The change happens because they not only begin to see themselves as deserving of these changes, but also because they become helpfully informed with concrete action steps that help move them through behavior change, are supported and consistently cheered on, and because they know what to do if they feel themselves slipping.
The bottom line is that discussions about healthy living need to happen to prevent long-term chronic health problems, and these conversations do need to happen early. But they shouldn’t start with shaming, embarrassment, or the putting on display of children who have weight problems and asking them to broadcast what’s so horrible about it while telling them that their love of the buffet is what got them to this point. We can do better.