It was surveys of two towns in Georgia that convinced Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta that the nation’s relentless campaign against childhood obesity wasn’t hitting hard enough: Georgia has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the U.S., and parents in the towns surveyed seemed unaware of their kids’ obesity. So to promote their Strong4Life campaign, Children’s decided that a painfully blunt approach was necessary, and damn the consequences–even if those consequences involved putting sad, overweight children on billboards and TV ads to shame their parents into action.
WOMAN’S VOICE. Being thick runs in our family. As her mom, I never noticed Tamika eating any differently than the rest of us. She likes junk food, but what kid doesn’t? When the doctor said she had type 2 diabetes, I never thought what we eat made her sick. I just always thought she was thick like her mama.
Children’s senior vice president Linda Matzigkeit says the ads as “arresting and in your face,” which appears to be an accurate assessment. But “arresting” isn’t the same as “effective.” There’s no mention of what parents can do to encourage their families to be healthy. No acknowledgement of the numerous and complex influences on health. No acknowledgement that fat != unhealthy. No mention that Maya, who plays the girl in the “Tamika” ad, doesn’t herself have diabetes. It’s just a heavy kid in black-and-white and a warning label in red–fat kids are dangerous. “Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia.”
Of course, we have to hear Children’s cheering that that people are talking about the ads, which means they’re working!
As far as Children’s Healthcare is concerned, the fact that the ads sparked debate means they achieved their goal, regardless of the reaction.
“Our intention was to get people talking about childhood obesity and we did that. We can’t do this alone; it’s going to take a whole community of physicians, parents and caregivers to solve the problem,” Matzigkeit said.
I am so sick of this “at least we got people talking about it” and “the debate means we achieved our goal” defense of indefensible ads. We heard it with Pete Hoekstra’s racist political ad, too: It doesn’t matter what we say or how we say it, as long as people talk about it–even if that talk is, “Holy crap, this is inappropriate.”
Or if that talk is, “Honey, I had no idea that being fat was ruining your childhood. It’s time for you to stop eating so much.” Or if it’s, “I’m eating nothing and exercising all the time–why am I not skinny enough?” Or if it’s, “I’m so disgusting. I deserve everything that comes to me.” Being arresting at the expense of kids and starting a conversation at the expense of kids is worth the potential trauma.
To Children’s, it’s worth it to have ads that give kids ammo to hate themselves and give their classmates–and, hell, even their parents–ammo to bully them. It’s okay that the ads fall back on the standard trope that fat just comes from eating too much and “fat prevention … begins at the buffet line.” It doesn’t matter that the ads ostensibly target parents but put woebegone fat kids front and center, as long as it gets people talking.
As always, to satisfy the knee-jerk critics, I have to throw in the standard disclaimer: No, there’s nothing wrong with healthy eating and exercise, as long as it’s appropriate for the individual kid. Maya, who received nutritional counseling as part of her payment for the ad, has since said that eating better and exercising has made it easier to walk the dog and cheer with the cheerleading squad.
But that’s not “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid” or “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Attention-getting, yes, and emotionally striking, particularly with the black-and-white photography and the children’s sad eyes. But inaccurate. It wasn’t the being fat that made it hard for Maya to have fun; it was not being fit enough to participate in fun activities. And when Maya spoke with Sanjay Gupta, she appeared slimmer than she did in the ad–but still heavy. The campaign seems to be undermining its own message by demonstrating that a kid can be fat and still have a fun, active life.
The ads have been compared numerous times to campaigns against smoking that use shocking images to drive the point home. “We felt like we needed a very arresting, abrupt campaign that said: ‘Hey, Georgia! Wake up. This is a problem,'” Matzigekeit told the AJC. So they used kids. Obesity is the new smoking, and fat kids are the new smoker’s cough and blackened lung. Except the lung doesn’t get shamed at school or at home for being blackened.
Whether or not you feel that obesity should be targeted as a self-contained epidemic, however you feel about approaches to encourage healthy eating and activity, whether or not you believe that this “strong message” is one that needs to be sent, can we at least agree that the trauma of shaming children isn’t worth the message? Or are we expected to see kids as acceptable collateral damage in the War on Fatties?
GIRL. I don’t like going to school because all the other kids pick on me. It hurts my feelings.
Well, this campaign is sure to make that better.
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