The Skinny on Childhood Obesity

by | January 25, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

One of the young overweight girls featured in an anti- childhood obesity campaign in Georgia was interviewed last week on CBS about her involvement in the project.  The project featured five overweight children, each linked to a different way children are affected by being obese. Chloe McSwain, 11 boasted high self-esteem by telling CBS News she thinks she is “very pretty.” McSwain wanted to be involved in the project to “help kids” by raising awareness.

According to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the folks who created this campaign, over one million kids in Georgia are classified as “obese”. The campaign is aimed at parents in an effort to give them a “wake-up call” about childhood obesity because “75 percent of parents of overweight or obese children don’t see the problem.”

Firstly, I think the images of overweight children on billboards and TV ads achieve little else than fat-shaming overweight kids. As someone who was an overweight kid, these ads make me cringe. When you are a fat kid there are a million things a day including mainstream media and images that remind you that you are not the norm. I think it’s great that McSwain has high self-esteem but I do not think this is reflective of overweight children living within the unrealistic body images they are bombarded with today.

I think this campaign grossly ignores how badly emotionally damaging this type of advertising can be on children. It only adds to the way overweight feel about themselves and the way other kids see them. In case you were unaware, kids can be awful to each other. One of the kids in the commercial, “Tina”, says “I don’t like going to school. The other kids pick on me and it hurts my feelings.” As an overweight kid I was bullied on a daily basis. It has damaging effects on your self-esteem and self-worth that stay with you for many years.

I am in support of advertising targeted at parents. As a kid you are at the mercy of your parents as your providers. You eat what they give you so educating parents on healthy eating and cooking makes sense. However I do not believe for a second that parents of overweight kids are ignorant to the fact, as the campaign suggests. No one wants to talk about the possibility that parents can be helpless in this situation. Many overweight kids get this way for reasons other than ignorant parents pumping them full of junk.

A major missing component of the campaign is the connection between poverty and nutrition.  According to the US Census Bureau American Community Survey in September of 2011 24.8 per cent or 600,000 children in Georgia are living in poverty.  Eating healthy and fresh food can be very expensive. Living a healthy lifestyle comes with a large price tag and for those living in poverty nutrition often becomes less of a priority and more of a luxury they cannot afford.

Lastly, some kids are just fat. I know no one wants to hear this one, especially with all the fear-mongering messaging in this campaign. I came from a family where I didn’t have overweight parents, my sister was average sized, we were active, and ate very healthily. My family doctor would tell my mom I would “grow out of it.” Clearly I didn’t and I’m still here. Of course there are health risks associated with not providing proper nutrition to children. However, I don’t think fat-shaming a generation of kids is going to make the change needed. The focus needs to shift to access to affordable nutrition and make the adaptation of an active lifestyle appealing to kids.

-Alicia Costa

, , , ,

  • Robin S

    I agree. Overweight children know the realities of “being fat” because they live that life everyday.

    • Jocelyn D’Eon

      I agree. I think the focus of these posters is not helpful. Perhaps educating the parents in affordable nutrition would be beneficial, ie: shopping, food preparation, etc.

  • Jasmine

    I think a huge part of the problem with these campaigns is that they localize the problem within the individual and make it a moral issue. And, these advertisements reinforce the idea that overweight is inherently unhealthy; the problem is that research on the subject has been greatly flawed. When confounding variables are accounted for, research has shown that there are actually less risks associated with being ‘overweight’ (according to the BMI) than there are with being underweight, with data suggesting that those with BMIs under 19 have higher rates of mortality. And, there are some protective factors associated with body fat. The way we’re talking about it is just all wrong. Overweight isn’t the problem. Bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes and some of those sizes happen to be larger than others. We need to be disseminating information on health behaviours – eating well, engaging in adequate exercise, healthy leisure activities, and the maintenance of mental health – rather than shaming people who have bodies that have become culturally unacceptable.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Agreed. The ad that bothered me most was the “it’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not” one, featuring the same girl pictured in the ad example above. I think it’s misguided to try to shame individuals, especially when little girls in particular have so many body image issues already. In my experience when I’ve needed to make any kind of lifestyle change, beating myself up and telling myself I’m ugly and useless is demotivating; caring about myself is what works.

  • Pingback: The Skinny On Childhood Obesity Gender Focus A Canadian()

  • Shannon

    According to the documentary Generation RX, 1 in 3 middle schools students in Atlanta are on some form of Ritalin. Now that’s a public health emergency!