Why Strong4Life is bad for fat kids
I'm guessing that most people who read BFB are aware of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's crap anti-childhood obesity ad campaign, ironically called "Strong4Life." There's been a lot of talk and a lot of action going on in the fatophere and in the social media opposing this campaign. Regan of Dances with Fat is creating an ad counter-campaign. Marilyn Wann has made it possible to Stand visibly against the campaign and for more positive values, and Atchka of Fierce, Freethinking Fatties has been opposing the campaign on the ground, with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and its donors. There's also a central site with up to date information called Stand4Everybody.com. It is really been an incredible show of community power and cooperation.
However, the majority of people still don't seem to get it. Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, when challenged, keeps citing undisclosed market research which they claim proves that only a small percentage of people find the Strong4Life campaign offensive. In a recent poll, 80% of respondents seemed to think that Disney's "Habit Heroes" exhibit at Epcot, which depicted fat people as embodiments of bad habits, was just hunky-dorey.
So, as a former fat kid, I'm going to talk about the specific reactions I think this type of campaign will trigger in fat kids and the communities surrounding them.
Fat children will respond to these ads in two ways, and it won't be either/or. They will disassociate, but they will not be able to avoid feelings of shame and lowered self worth. Additionally, the campaign will affect their peers and the adults in their lives, encouraging bullying and lowering expectations.
If they know deep down that they are healthy - they are strong and active and the doctor tells them all their numbers are fine except their BMI - fat children will think that they're exceptions to the rules. They'll think (and this is one place my mind went as a kid), "None of the things they say about fat kids seem to apply to me. I don't get winded easily. I'm not sweaty. I don't eat a lot of junk food. I can keep up with my thin friends. The doctor must be wrong. I must not really be a fat kid, or being fat is not the same for me as it is for other kids."
The thing is, I wasn't an exception. The vast majority of fat kids are healthy and have normal lives; the vast majority are exceptions to the stereotypes in these ads*. Notably, the child actors in the ads are all healthy, normal kids who happen to be larger than average. I suspect that most fat kids won't be able to relate to the ads and will disassociate themselves as much as possible. However, they won't be able to escape the fact that the ads are about them; that they are being singled out.
Shame and lowered self worth
If you tell children that they're unhealthy, they won't think of themselves as healthy. They won't play as hard. They won't push their limits. They'll start to avoid physical activity. Believing that you're unhealthy is not neutral. Just as there's a clinically significant placebo effect that kicks in when people are given an ineffective treatment that they believe is real, there is a "nocebo effect." If healthy people are made to believe they're sick, then they tend to get sick.
This works psychologically as well. If you tell kids that they're pathetic, then they may start to believe it. They may pull away from their friends. They may get depressed. With their self respect and their support systems under attack, they will get bullied.
Teachers and thinner children will be looking at these ads too, and the fat kids will get bullied more than ever and will have to deal with increased prejudice and lowered expectations. As the expectations of their peers and teachers increasingly match the stereotypes in the ads, how many fat kids will be able to maintain the feelings of competence and social normalcy they need to be successful in their lives? Even if they're able to maintain equilibrium in their own minds, they are going to be treated like damaged goods. Prejudice toward fat children has existed for a long time; at least since the fifties. But never has a respected organization so clearly told fat kids, their peers, and their mentors "Fat children are pathetic and diseased. They bring shame on their families. Fat kids: your bodies are unacceptable."
It will become clear to these children what others - even adults - think of their bodies. They will start wondering if it might not be worth it to starve themselves so that their bodies won't cause others to make negative assumptions about them and their parents. Alternatively, they may rebel or stonewall. Healthier habits are frankly the least likely thing to result from this.
*Oh, and fat kids who actually do have health problems associated with their size? They deserve respect and privacy, not public humiliation and condescending pity.