A children’s health campaign in Atlanta stirred some controversy. To combat child obesity in one of the fattest American states (and, by extension, probably one of the fattest sub-national jurisdictions in the world), a hospital posted PSAs all over the city warning children of the dangers of being overweight and inactive, with photos of fat children. This is, essentially, fat shaming, in the name of public health.
This won’t work, by the way, before we get all abstract about the ethics. As a self-proclaimed fatty (many people will attempt to dispute my identification with this label, but regardless of what you think of my size today I was overweight for all of childhood – see photos) I know how obese children already feel. They are already ashamed of their bodies, with low self-esteem, and aware of the gloomy-looming-doom of early graves. This low confidence fosters a defeatist attitude, a fatalistic depression that makes them think they will always be fat. They’re not allowed to play sports because other kids tease them for jiggling body parts that we openly bash for being disgusting and only found on lesser people. In their misery they binge on junk food to cope. They don’t need this kind of “tough love” (that’s really cold and impersonal, no love about it) to get them going.
And parents – parents are, after all, fundamental to this change – parents will not be impressed with this insult to how much they love their children. Parents will resent the message as much as or more than overweight children. They know their children are worth just as much as any other human being and deserve a chance at a happy childhood. Yes, a happy childhood includes being healthy. But it doesn’t include being so harshly scorned.
So these scare tactics won’t budge anyone. They were clearly conceived by thin people. They were modeled after a successful anti-drug campaign, clearly without thinking much through. A key difference is that drugs are what people do – there is a former self to look back on that was not ravaged by substance abuse. Fat, however, especially for those already overweight in childhood, is what people are.
For some, and I will admit as a child this afflicted me severely at times, the stigma of that wrecks a healthy self-image so much that they can’t even wait for diabetes or heart disease and are inclined towards killing themselves early. No child should ever be driven to this level of desperation. If this is considered a cost worth the benefits, then everybody remotely complicit with this campaign should be fired and blacklisted from the realm of public health. We need an “It Gets Better” movement for overweight kids – and underweight kids, the very short, the very tall, or anyone else who gets disproportionately bullied for reasons pertaining to size and growth they’re not fully in control of. Do you want to motivate kids to get healthy? Tell them “Everybody is continually changing. Not everyone starts out on the same level with the bodies and genes they’re given. But eat well and live actively, and when you grow up and are out of high school you will find your groove, reclaim your health, and live a happier life. Your weight now is not a measure of your self-worth.”
Quite honestly, a lot of the unpursued dreams I’ve written about were turned down by my sense of reality because most people silently believe that fat girls won’t make it. “Stop Childhood Obesity” blends in too well with the existing cultural prejudice of “stop obese children” – but we fail to ask, “Stop them from what?” Well, for anyone who’s stopping an obese child from anything, I guess you’re doing your part.