The U.S is in the grips of a childhood obesity epidemic, and Georgia is ground zero. With 24% of third grade children medically obese and an annual bill of 2.1 million for childhood obesity related hospitalizations it is clear that Georgia is in a state of crisis.
“Georgia is second in the nation on childhood obesity, and that’s a top 10 list we want to get out of as fast as we can,” <Dr Wulkan> says.
“We’re seeing very young children in our clinic that had high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease. The long-term health impact for our state, looking at the numbers, is tremendous.”
The time for “warm and fuzzies”, he says, was over. So instead, his hospital created an aggressive campaign, based in part off a previously successful anti-methamphetamine campaign.
This time the target wasn’t drugs, but obesity.
Part of the Strong4Life included giant billboards and bus shelter ads, with photos of grim-looking, overweight children and dire warnings about their future, such as “Chubby isn’t cute if it leads to type two diabetes” and “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid”.
The images in the campaign are certainly confronting, but the intent of the campaign is to scare parents of obese children out of complacency, not to mock or insult children. Despite this, fat activists are up in arms about the campaign and the potential effect it may have on the self esteem of overweight and obese children.
“When you’re fat – I calculated this – you’re subjected to 386,170 negative messages a year. When you’re constantly stigmatised, you can internalise that,” says Ragen Chastain, who runs the blog Dances With Fat.
That these messages were targeted to children especially upset her readers.
“Some people identified with the bullied fat kids that they once were. Some parents identified with their own kids and others realised that humiliation is no form of healthcare,” she says.
“It got them to say this isn’t right.”
Ms Chastain says that while she supports healthy habits and movement for children of all sizes, singling out overweight young people feels dangerous and unfair.
Ragen has started her own campaign to raise funds for her own set of billboards, and so far has raised over fifteen thousand dollars. The plan is to put up they’re own set of billboards with fat friendly messages. “”We want kids to have tangible proof that they are respected and valued in the body they have now,” she said in an interview with the BBC.
The backlash to the campaign doesn’t end there:
Fat activist Marilyn Wann designed a template so that people could create their own version of the Strong4Life advertisement, featuring a more upbeat picture and inspirational message.
These photos were posted online, with messages like “I stand for happy and healthy children of all sizes” and “I stand for dignity, kindness and the delights of diversity”. Many have been collected on Tumblr.
A quick visit to this tumblr site reveals a disturbing lack of acknowledgement of the dangers surrounding childhood obesity. Instead, the site focuses on gratifying the egos of fat activists and other people intent on denying the dangers of poor nutrition, lack of exercise and excess body fat.
The campaign from fat activists has been relentless, with some activists letter bombing hospitals and stalking facebook pages.
Meanwhile, Shannon Russell, who runs the blog Fierce, Freethinking Fatties launched a continued campaign against the ads. Every day, he posted on his blog about the billboards, while also writing letters to the hospital staff and commenting on their Facebook page.
Fat activists and the architects of the Strong 4 Life campaign seem to be arguing at cross purposes: Strong 4 Life is primarily concerned with correcting the array of health problems that come from chronic, poor health choices; while fat activists seem primarily concerned with the feelings of the overweight and obese. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being respectful of people’s feelings– especially children– but when someone is engaging in a lifestyle that could leave them to an early grave, sometimes they need to hear harsh truths. No other health crisis has created this response. No one suggests with a straight face that we cancel the faces of meth campaign because it might hurt the feelings of drug addicts. We don’t shy away from AIDS education because it may offend the promiscuous, we acknowledge that drug addiction and STI’s can cause irreparable harm to an individual and we educate them on ways they can avoid these diseases. Why should obesity be any different?
Fat activists will point out that not every obese person is necessarily unhealthy, and not every unhealthy person is obese, and they are correct. Thanks to genetics, some people will be able to hide diseases like type 2 diabetes, poor heart health and diet beneath a light frame; and some people will appear heavyset even if they have a great diet and exercise regularly. But for the vast majority of the population their lifestyle will be reflected in their appearance, and children that get as drastically obese as the ones depicted in this ad campaign are certainly at risk for a lifetime of health problems and– tragically– possibly early death.
- Obesity and Disease VS. Sympathy and Blame | Intentious
- Fat is a Feminist Issue – Body Politics beyond the Looking Glass | Intentious
- Child’s Play – Maggie Goes On A Diet | Intentious
- “Fat-Shaming” Childhood Obesity Ads Are Painful But Necessary (blisstree.com)
- Are Thin Women Not Real? | Intentious
- Liposuction May Help Your Heart | Intentious
- Fatorexia – Overweight People Who Deny They Are Fat | Intentious
- 62kg, Four Years Old: Obesity “A Mystery” To Parents | Intentious
- The Controversial “Why Am I Fat?” Video Campaign to Stop Childhood Obesity (dailymuscle.com)
- Strong 4 Life: talking about childhood obesity
- I Stand Against Weight Bullying
- Georgia obesity campaign sparks fierce online reaction - BBC
- Obesity Surveillance and Statistics - Department of Public Health, State of Georgia