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Georgia’s Strong4Life campaign relies heavily on fat-shaming

By February 7, 2012 52 Comments

The Strong4Life campaign - fat-shaming?

There is no denying childhood obesity is a growing concern. The CDC reports that one-third of American children and adolescents are overweight or obese. The health ramifications of an unhealthy lifestyle, especially one that begins in childhood, are severe.

Seventy percent of obese minors had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and obese children and adolescents show greater rates of pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea.

The CDC’s findings are shocking, but Georgia’s Strong4Life campaign decided facts weren’t quite shocking enough. Instead, the campaign hopes fat-shaming will pique interest. The print ads feature sullen overweight children and copy that reads, “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not,” and “Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line,” which sounds more like something a grade-school bully would say than an organization concerned for children’s health.

The tagline of Strong4Life’s television spots? “Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia.”

The ads do work in some cases. Maya Walters, a teen featured in the campaign, attests to the effectiveness. She has made changes to her lifestyle, like using less salt in her food, and no longer feels winded when climbing up stairs.

But are the ads effective on a grand scale? Marsha Davis, a childhood obesity prevention researcher at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, doesn’t think so. “We know from communication research that when we highlight a health risk but fail to provide actionable steps people can take to prevent it, the response is often either denial or some other dysfunctional behavior,” Davis says. “We need to fight obesity, not obese people.”

A counter-campaign from Health at Every Size

The opposition doesn’t stop with Davis. Leah Segedie, a fitness blogger at BookieBoo and Mamavation, organized a twitter chat under the hash tag #Ashamed. The goal of the conversation was “to talk about the issue in a way that’s not shameful and gets the word out,” and “petition Strong4Life to take the billboards down,” says Segidie.

Amy Lupold Biar (@ResourcefulMom) joined the conversation, tweeting, “Let’s show kids all the varieties of healthy. Let’s help parents get access to affordable fruits [and] veggies. Let’s change schools!” Cecily (@Ciclyk) quipped, “If shame helped us lose weight, well, we’d all be VERY SKINNY.”

Longtime fat-acceptance activist Marilyn Wann, also unhappy with the negative message the campaign was sending, launched a counter-campaign to stop Strong4Life’s fat-shaming. The counter-campaign features adult men and women in ads similar to those of the original campaign with copy like, “I stand for doing the things we love in the bodies we have.”

The goal of the counter-campaigns is not to deny children the opportunity to eat healthy food and participate in activities. The goal is to stop weight-related harassment.

The Strong4Life campaign uses overweight or obese children as proof of failure on the part of parents, a tactic that hurts everyone, and offers little positive motivation for change. Frankly, children struggling with health issues deserve better than that.

[Editor’s note: Regan Chastain has begun a counter-campaign to put up body-positive billboards in Georgia. -Jennifer]