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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 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.

  1. Disassociation

    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.

  2. 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.

Velvet L'Amour's new web magazine - wow! | Weight loss drug causes liver damage, loss of sleep, possible homicidal rage

vesta44's picture
March 8th, 2012 | Link | This is what we were trying

This is what we were trying to tell CHOA and S4L when we were posting on their Facebook page about taking down the billboards - until they banned us and therefore deleted every one of our comments.
I even came right out and asked S4L what would happen if fat kids did everything S4L recommended - ate those healthy foods (in moderate amounts) and got the recommended amounts of exercise every day and didn't lose any weight but their health improved - would those fat kids still be considered "failures" because they did everything "right" but didn't get thinner? I was ignored - S4L refused to answer that question and banned me when I posted links about kids who committed suicide because they were bullied (a couple of them were bullied about their weight).
I also asked them why they were ignoring all the thin, sedentary kids who don't eat healthy meals and was told that the campaign was about ending childhood obesity. Made me think it's not about health at all, it's about the fact that they don't like looking at fat kids/adults and are using "health" as an excuse for heaping more shame and blame on fat kids and upping the bullying in order to make them thin so they don't have to look at them. If it was about health, it could have taken a page from the Let's Move campaign and the direction it has gone now - the commercials for it don't target fat kids, they're aimed at all kids, telling them to get up and play an hour a day and show kids of all sizes playing all kinds of active games/sports which is a far cry from where it started out.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

DeeLeigh's picture
March 16th, 2012 | Link | I know. They're putting

I know. They're putting their hands over their ears and going "lalalalalala" when we talk about our real experiences as former fat kids (and as fat adults). I'd like to think they're just idiots, but it's pretty obvious that the ad campaign is fuelled more by hate and prejudice than by concern over health.

DeeLeigh's picture
March 16th, 2012 | Link | Thanks so much, Debra. I

Thanks so much, Debra. I think we've got the nocebo effect working on a massive scale with weight and health right now.

moxie3's picture
March 11th, 2012 | Link | A wonderful piece! As a

A wonderful piece! As a former fat kid from the 60s and 70s who as a rule was told to go out and play and would ride my bike for hours I had no clue in my own head that I was "healthy" due to the fact my body was always criticized either by my mother/doctor or some other family member more so than friends and/or strangers. I also happened to be the only fat child in my family of five children. My father was a larger and fat adult and I was the spitting image of him but still was not allowed to take pride in that fact either.

That was all I knew and I couldn't differentiate between what I "was" and what I was told so I grew into an adult who is still damaged by those messages but who finds support at sites like BFB Smiling

I can only imagine how I would feel today if I were a fat child not only being bullied by my family but also it was slammed in my face on a daily basis by the news, at school, on billboards and then I'm sure there would be more attacks made to my person by peers and strangers. I'm also glad my children who did not escape the wrath but at least are not young children during this period of our history where fat hate is even worse! Moxie

moxie3's picture
March 11th, 2012 | Link | Moxie part deux

Also if you want to use me as an example since I was taught as a child that being fat/chubby/larger than average was bad and that the only thing good I could accomplish in life that would mean anything would be to lose weight would end up screwing me up for most of my adulthood then I'm the poster person! Although I consider myself to be bright I never finished college but made sure in the meantime that I was able to lose weight to be acceptable in life via drugs/starvation which of course doesn't last forever either. So then there were two gastric surgeries etc.... But it was ingrained in me forever that this was my only purpose in life which is very sad. Sad

DeeLeigh's picture
March 16th, 2012 | Link | It makes me so mad that

It makes me so mad that happened to you, moxie. There's a huge problem out there with everyone - but especially fat women and children - being expected to put the most basic and important aspects of our lives on hold until we're thin. Well, people rarely succeed in changing their body type permanently, so we end up with people delaying or not doing things that we would love to do and would excel at. It's never too late, though!

moxie3's picture
March 16th, 2012 | Link | Thanks DeeLeigh I'm always

Thanks DeeLeigh I'm always very envious of fellow fat women who didn't have the confidence problems I had due to my size. I think if only I had been brought up differently but you can't change the past just not make the same mistakes.

Right now I'm living vicariously through my two daughters one who is still looking for FT work after getting her masters and the other who wants to become a professor one day and in grad school now. Maybe when they're done and all is paid for I'll be one of those senior citizens getting her degree for free! Moxie Eye-wink

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