by Mary Jessica Hammes
May 10, 2011
A recent billboard campaign meant to combat childhood obesity in Georgia has a lot of folks talking—and not everyone is very happy.
“WARNING,” read one billboard, using the image of an unsmiling child actor who is overweight. “Stocky, chubby, chunky are still fat.”
Those are harsh words, but necessary ones, according to Stop Childhood Obesity, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta campaign behind the billboards. The website offers sobering statistics: childhood obesity increased over 300 percent in the last 30 years. If both parents are overweight, a child’s likelihood of being overweight increases by 60–80 percent. Georgia has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the United States.
The billboards were the first part of a three-part campaign in Macon and Columbus, GA, and have since been taken down. However, there are still videos online, starring these same real-life children. The tone (and the black-and-white color scheme) is somber, even depressing.
“Mom, why am I fat?” Bobby asks his mother in one video. His mother, also overweight, only sighs sadly in response. A statistic follows: 75 percent of Georgia parents with overweight kids don’t recognize the problem.
“I don’t like going to school because all of the other kids pick on me,” says Tina in another video. “It hurts my feelings.”
“We talked to overweight and obese kids all over Georgia, and they resoundingly responded, ‘Give it to us straight,’” said Ron Frieson, senior vice president of external affairs for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and chair of the ad campaign. “They told us exactly how to communicate and reach them. So that’s exactly what these ads are doing, talking to kids exactly how they want.”
But do the ads do more harm than good? Critics say yes.
“Billboards depicting fat kids are extraordinarily harmful to the very kids they are supposedly trying to help,” the press release read. “NAAFA challenges the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance to create an advertising campaign that encourages people of all sizes to eat healthy food, add movement to our lives, and celebrate our differences.”
Frieson acknowledged that the ads are intended to make parents and adults uncomfortable, citing that his team’s research shows that parents ignore obesity and its health risks. “The ads are aimed at starting the conversation and getting people to talk about the problem. And we’ve heard from kids all over the pilot cities where the ads are running that say we’ve empowered them, the opposite of what our critics, many who don’t even live in Georgia, have said.”
Indeed, on a recent segment on the TODAY show highlighting the billboard controversy, one of the teenage girls featured in the campaign had nothing but good things to say.
Before appearing in the campaign, Maya Walters had experienced some bullying, but actually being in the ad “gave me way more self-confidence than I had before,” she told Meredith Vieira.
“Before, I didn’t feel pretty,” says Walters. “I didn’t feel like I could do anything like this because of my weight. And now I see somebody likes me just the way I am and because of how I look.”
Vieira didn’t ask any other follow-up questions, leaving the viewer to ponder if Walters felt better just because there was an acting job that capitalized on her appearance, without trying to make her change it. After all, the online article that accompanies the Today footage gives a hint of what she’s up against in the media: “a pretty but overweight 14-year-old” is how Walters is described, as if it is impossible to be both pretty and overweight.
Poor word choices aside, the NAAFA echoes concerns that a clinical psychologist voiced on that Today segment: that such a campaign can backfire, resulting in teasing and bullying that can make children who are overweight shy away from choices—healthy diets, exercise—that could help them lose weight.
“Stigmatization does not work,” said Peggy Howell, public relations director of NAAFA. “They claim this campaign is aimed to shock parents into doing something about their children’s weight. They think the kids can’t see or read? Now it’s okay for government agencies to bully the most bullied children? … Bullying and teasing result in horrifying emotional and physical damages, including suicide. Bullying for any reason is wrong and should be stopped at all costs and these campaigns are a form of bullying. They are creating an eating disordered nation.”
In fact, according to a 2006 study published in Pediatrics, Howell added, children who were teased or bullied about their weight were more likely to develop either binging or dieting eating disorders.
The campaign, said Frieson, isn’t bullying, but a desperate, maybe even a last-ditch effort to stop a public health issue in its tracks.
“This epidemic has been 30 years in the making and nothing we’ve been doing as a society has worked so far,” he said. “[The campaign] might be our last chance to save a generation of kids who may be the first not to outlive their parents.”
Still, the billboard campaign runs counter to NAAFA’s vision of size- and self-acceptance in a “thin-obsessed society.” There is an underlying, all-pervasive culture of discrimination against overweight people, according to NAAFA.
“Wholesome food and enjoyable movement is good for everybody,” said Howell. Rather than focus the billboards on overweight children, “Why not encourage all people to eat well and move more?”
Frieson said that’s what’s coming next.
“This is only the awareness stage,” he said. “Once we’ve gotten parents to pay attention, we’re launching the next phase … offering easy solutions for kids and their families to get healthy.”
A hint of the next phase was shown on the Today segment, and it’s indeed a big change from phase one. Gone are the solemn black-and-white images in favor of bright, cheerful pictures of children dancing around, being active, feeling optimistic. Throughout each stage of the campaign, the characters become emotionally (and literally) lighter. Walters mentioned during her interview that she’s lost a few pounds in real life since joining the campaign.
“We’ll follow some of the kids in the ads through their personal journey,” said Frieson. “This is a long-term commitment to the kids of Georgia, not just a one-time ad campaign.”
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