In Weight-Loss Maintenance on May 6, 2011 at 5:56 pm

The Today Show this morning ran a feature on Georgia’s anti-obesity campaign aimed at children.

My one-word summary of the campaign:  horrifying.  God bless Yale University Psychologist Rebecca Puhl (indubitably eruditer than I am!) for stating as much, calling it an example of “what not to do.” 

If you are unfamiliar, the campaign currently features children who talk about how awful it is to be obese.  They are child actors presumably echoing the words of children culled from a focus group.  This is Maya Walters, aka Tamika. 

I feature her, because she went on the Today program and allowed Meredith Viera to interview her, along with campaign spokesman Ron Freison, of Children’s Health Alliance of Atlanta, and Today Show regular, Clinical Psychologist Judith Sills.

In the interview, Ron Freison says that the campaign “gives voice” to obese children.  However, in many of the ads, actors like Maya do not speak at all.  The ad currently featured at the Georgia Stop Childhood Obesity website shows “Tamika” standing, silent and sullen while her mother talks about her, describing her as “thick.”

I used to act.  I have auditioned and waited for a call.  I know the joy of getting a part.  “They like me!  They actually like me!”  Poor little Maya is swept up in that emotional whirl.  She told Meredith Viera, “This ad actually helped me; gave me way more self confidence than I had before. . .to know that they liked me, just how I was.”  How sad.  The only part for a talented, young fat actress is playing someone who is plagued by diabetes and sad about her future, and whose mother is panicked for her health.

Yeah, that’s going to be a permanent boost to her self-esteem.  I sigh.

As you’re watching the Today Show, you’ll see various billboards from the campaign flash by in the background.  They each feature a fat child next to typeface.  Here’s what they say, so you don’t have to pause the piece (all caps is the campaign’s editorial choice, not mine):





Yes, indeed, this will certainly boost the self esteem of fat children.  It will make them feel good about themselves and want to exercise joyfully and eat healthfully.  And when that behavior doesn’t show miraculous Biggest Loser results on the scale, they’ll be JUST FINE anyway.  This is a GREAT idea.

Judith Sills was a wimp.  She complimented the campaign for addressing “denial” before acknowledging that there might be a price to be paid, such as nine-year-olds dieting.   She clarified, “We don’t want to separate out obesity, but we want to notice the problem.”  Notice?  Look at those billboard warnings!  That’s more than just a little noticing, and does she really think these kids and their parents aren’t already painfully aware?  Isn’t that kind of the point of the maudlin TV ads:  to honestly portray fat kids’ angst?  Yeesh.

I’m dumbfounded.

  1. Heartbreaking. It’s not hard to imagine the negative effect this could have on fat kids.

    However, the more they talk about how fat kids are bad, unhealthy, neglected or whatever, the more the individual fat kids are going to disassociate. I remember when I was growing up, my mom gave me an article to read from Weight Watchers Magazine. She thought it would motivate me to join Weight Watchers with her.

    It was about a girl around my age who had started out at approximately my weight. She talked about not being able to cross her legs. Even though I had big legs, I could cross mine (at the knee, with calves together). She talked about not being to keep up with her friends. I could keep up with my friends. She talked about having crazy eating habits. I didn’t have the type of eating habits she described. She said that she had health problems when she was heavy. All my numbers were perfect.

    There was nothing in the story that related to how my body felt or functioned that I could relate to. The only things I could relate to had to do with how I was treated by other people. And, I correctly identified that as a problem with them, not with me.

    “I’m not like this girl,” I thought. “She has all kinds of problems that I don’t have.” “Maybe my body is all right as it is, and hers wasn’t,” “maybe other people who are my size are different from me.”

    And for ten years, I thought I was some kind of exception to the rules about fatness. Then I found the fat acceptance movement online and realized that there are a hell of a lot of exceptions to those rules. In fact, I thought, maybe most of us are “exceptions.” Maybe everything we’ve been told about weight and health and fatness as something that makes fitness impossible are complete bullshit. Of course, as I’ve listened to others’ experiences over the years, I’ve developed a more nuanced view of these issues.

    But, the fact remains that if you tell fat children that they’re unfit, ill and pathetic and they know they’re not, they’re never going to believe another word you say about body size and health. And maybe that’s a good thing.

    • Ah, DeeLeigh, you are extraordinary. My experiences — my mother pointing out that I was the fattest girl in my drama class, my father telling me to “work on my thighs” to get dates, etc., etc. — they led me in just the direction intended — serial dieting. Now I am the human experiment and a bit more stoic, but I feel the damage nonetheless.

  2. This “campaign” makes me so mad I can’t see straight. Grrrr.

    It institutionalized oppression based on socioeconomic class (class warfare against an oppressed group): increases discrimination against people with lower levels of education and lower incomes and thus increases their levels of chronic stress(children have little enough power as it is, and when they are poor and have less access to a solid education, they already suffer and struggle to make sense out of the insanity of culturally sanctioned oppression by authority figures…ugh, Meredith, pathetic.)

    “Scientific American” wrote about the “diabetes belt” a couple months back and listed 15 states with counties that have the highest rates of diabetes in the country (Georgia was among them.) Not surprisingly, eleven of those states have the highest poverty rates (% of folks living below the poverty line) in the nation.

    The correlation between socioeconomic conditions and diabetes is MUCH higher than that between diabetes and so-called obesity (a socially constructed category used to enhance the medicalization of obesity and discrimination.) Even in a nation with a more progressive health care system the research revealed that inequality (aka poverty) was a much greater determinant of diabetes than weight. (Sorry no link. Maybe another reader has that study. It has been replicated by several researchers.)

    An article in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that socioeconomic class is “The Ignored Determinant of Health”.

    Basically, socioeconomic oppression cannot be medicalized, to allow the medical system and big pharma to make huge profits—directly—so, instead, class issues are socially transformed (through rhetoric/media/garbage science) into so-called medical issues by focusing on other markers, such as obesity, which often results from oppression and high levels of chronic stress, such as income and housing insecurity.

    By focusing on individual behaviors, rather than on social solutions to inequality, we keep filling the pockets of corporate CEOs and elites in the so-called health care industry—but folks are not getting healthier (only poorer).

    The big push now is for bariatric surgery (again, huge profits for a few elites in key industries), which one study shows uses ad/media rhetoric (especially on internet sites) to minimize the risks and skew outcomes. First, obesity is framed as a “disease” over which genetics etc. gets blamed, to show fat people fake empathy. Not surprisingly, when surgery is “effective” (HA!, at what cost?) SURGERY gets the credit and praise, but when it fails then of course the patients are blamed for not following protocols (for their “noncompliance” and “return to bad habits”….)

    A very young woman in England who recently lost over half her body weight after BS (the perfect acronym, no?, for bariatric surgery) is now being accused in media stories of refusing to eat (“anorexic girl”); she is a perfect example of this doublespeak. She is struggling to survive, but “her disordered eating” is now blamed rather than the surgery itself. Imagine that.

    I’m going to cut firewood now. Maybe some of this steam coming out of my ears will get released a bit faster. Grrrrrrrrr……..

    • Thanks for the links, hopeful. Sorry that WordPress held your comment up for approval. That happens, I think when there’s more than one link contained in a comment. Also hope your firewood cutting does the trick.

      I may call on someone to get me the full versions of the NEJM essay and the surgery study. Those look really interesting! Post worthy.

  3. I’m an extremely stubborn person, and according to my parents, I’ve been that way since birth. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but I’ve always kept my own council.

    I hated, HATED, feeling so alienated and unattractive when I was younger, but it was so very clear to me that dieting didn’t work. I saw aunts and uncles yo-yoing upward when I was a kid, and I asked myself “Are they just going back to their old habits? Could I make dieting work long-term even though they can’t? Am I a wiser or stronger person than they are?” And I didn’t think I was – not because I didn’t think well of myself, but because I respected my relatives and thought well of them, too. I didn’t think that they were too stupid to see that you have to adopt different habits to keep weight off. There had to be something else going on.

    So I decided to stand my ground until I’d figured things out. I did suspect that I’d figured things out, eventually, but by that time I wasn’t desperate enough to make the necessary sacrifices.

  4. The thing that’s really heartbreaking about all of this panic over childhood “obesity” is that it’s not just harming kids who are fat, it’s harming all kids. Even kids who don’t meet the definition of “overweight” or “obese” still think they’re fat, are still teased and bullied for being fat. I have a step-grandson who is now almost 18, he’s 6′ 1″, weighs 155 lbs, thinks he’s fat, and has been bullied at school for years for being fat (and he’s never been fat, he’s always been thin as a rail). He was on the wrestling team and always wrestled in the lighter classes, so how anyone could think he was fat and bully him for that is beyond me. I have a grandson who is almost 16, he’s 6′ 2″ and weighs 190 lbs. He also thinks he’s fat and is bullied for it and has been for years (and he’s also never been fat). When even average/thin kids are bullied for being fat, how much worse is it for kids who are actually fat? And to have commercials/billboards like these in communities surely doesn’t make life better for any child, no matter what their size is. This doesn’t allow children to be children – to learn, play, study, grow, have fun, and mature at their own rates. It forces them to face part of life that no one, not even adults, should have to face (no one should have to face stigmatization because of size). Forcing kids into something that doesn’t work for the majority of adults is insanity to the nth degree, and why people who should (and do) know better keep insisting on this is ridiculous. Is money that important that it’s worth ruining the health of millions of people? Because, bottom line, that’s what this is about – money in the pockets of the diet/pharmaceutical industries. It’s not about health, it’s about money.

    • 6’1″ and 155 lbs. Wow. I wonder whether the bullies thought they were being clever in an ironic/sarcastic way? Nevertheless, bullying hurts. As you say, hurts all kids (and grown-ups). The kids that are having their triggers pulled for anorexia/manorexia are also in great, great pain. Our society is ill with bullying.

    • Of course you’re right, vesta, about this “campaign” (witch hunt) hurting all children–it provides children with additional, sanctioned (approved) ways to experience feelings of prejudice towards others (and to internalize self doubt and self hate) and to systematically act out feelings of aggression by hating or discriminating against other children (and adults) on the basis of surface appearance(s). Ugh. A whole class of people (“obese”) has been and continues to be constructed through rhetoric, as scapegoats to vent rage and fears upon, instead of the masses getting angry at political and economic policies that keep recreating so much widespread insecurity and fear (it’s getting harder for many people to insure that their basic needs will get met, for instance.)

      IF it was actually a problem about human health (and trying to decrease health risks), then health care professionals (doctors, nurses, dentists, etc) would join together to create and lobby for changes in social policies (and socioeconomic conditions) that result in increased health risks, including environmental health risks.

      But how do health care workers profit by attempting to change policies that would actually reduce environmental health risks, and reduce inequality, etc? If you work in health care industries, then if one works in that direction (to try and reduce risks associate with social determinants of health) one ends up working against one’s own economic interests. Oh. The irony.

      I tried and tried to talk with other nursing students about the research that shows the social determinants of health but the “health care” mindset is so focused on individuals and what individuals can supposedly do to improve their own health! (the study I mentioned above should have named the progressive country where that diabetes research was done, Canada, but I was too angry to proof read, LOL).

      Finally, Debra, it would be very interesting to know how much the big-name media docs profit from bariatric procedures, even when they do not directly do that kind of surgery… I’ve seen docs who get *kick backs* in various under-the-table-ways for referring patients to sleep study clinics–for example, docs who OWN interests in those clinics–but clinicians who attempt to whistle blow are often the ones who end up being unemployed.

      Do the media docs who focus on obesity research (and appear to show great empathy for fat people) have hidden ways to profit from endorsing the safety of bariatric surgery? Because, if they do, those are serious conflicts of interest and it would be good to bring those to the surface. Thanks for the chance to rant a bit more!! 🙂

      • “Of course you’re right, vesta, about this “campaign” (witch hunt) hurting all children–it provides children with additional, sanctioned (approved) ways to experience feelings of prejudice towards others (and to internalize self doubt and self hate) and to systematically act out feelings of aggression by hating or discriminating against other children (and adults) on the basis of surface appearance(s). Ugh.”

        Yes. It’s not only about money — it’s also about evil psychology. People who don’t want to change systemic problems shift the blame to individuals instead, and then people who don’t suffer from that amalgam of problems have someone to feel superior to (all the while ignoring how the systemic problems damage their own lives).

        I’m too exhausted to go on. This stuff wears me out (which I know is exactly what it’s intended to do — sap the strength of those who would fight it — but d*mn).

  5. I saw this last week and was very upset. Also, that Judith Sills is a psychologist and is endorsing this? She needs her face slapped.

    Thanks for being far more articulate about this than I could.

  6. Thanks for the post and all the great comments. I too am profoundly appalled.

    What’s going on in the world? At first, as I started becoming aware of the questionable science pointing to the horrors of having a BMI above 24.9, I thought it was my awareness that was making me more sensitive to how much fat hatred and prejudice there is practically everywhere–including, and in particular in, the weight loss blogosphere.

    But now I’m starting to wonder if things aren’t objectively getting much, much worse. Nary a day goes by when we don’t see articles in mainstream newspapers about the dangers of overweight: mothers are now criticized for working outside the home because it increases the chance of their kids becoming overweight; mothers are criticized for letting their children drink from a baby bottle past the age of two because it increases the risk of childhood obesity; we’re all criticized for not sleeping enough because IWMUF (it will make us fatter); we’re all criticized for not eating right because IWMUF; we’re all told that if we don’t get X minutes of exercise every f-ing week (never mind that the number of minutes is probably nearly the equivalent of a part-time job) IWMUF…

    WTF is going on?

    And P.S., hopefulandfree, on May 2, 40% of Canadians elected the most small-c conservative, misogynist, working-class hating, “friends of the religious right” government we have ever had. It’s going to be hard to use the word “progressive” with respect to Canada for at least the next four years. 60% of the population is scared crap-less.

    • Well, NewMe, that’s what I get for not following news. I kinda suspected that was coming…not sure why your sad news about Canada didn’t surprise me. Still. I give you all more credit, and think you folks are still capable of actually learning from experience.

      If I watched TV or kept too close of track of media doings, I’m sure I would be on the floor. It truly is too much crap to carry inside one’s consciousness. I travel light mostly, though you wouldn’t know it sometimes from my writing.

      Ever since Debra called me a poet, I went with it. HA! So let it be written (by Debra), so let it be done.

      It has become the most liberating thing in the world for me…to sit down whenever a poem-like-thingie or idea or image surfaces and just write it, straight-shot style, no turning back, no mental censor, no pre-planning, no judgement, just let the fingers move, then…huh.


      There it is.

      What the hell is that?

      Oh. Well. Maybe someone will have a use for it. 🙂

      Thanks Debra!

  7. Littlem has put her finger on the bobo: I too am feeling sapped of energy right now. Any suggestions on getting my mojo back?

    • I’m getting some new antioxidants, but my nutritionist says it’ll take at least a month before feeling the difference.
      IDK what to do in the meantime. I’m just exhausted. I’ll take suggestions too.

      Anyone? Bueller? 🙂

      (I think if I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that insidious, media-reinforced prejudice — against women, people of color, overweight people, anything — is the hardest thing in the world to fight, because you can’t reason with it, so logic doesn’t work as a weapon. You just have to figure out ways to try to get around it.)

      • Littlem, are you getting enough iron and vitamin D? I was mildly endemic without realizing it and it was really affecting my energy levels. Iron supplements can cause constipation, but there are two kinds that don’t: Proferrin (which is expensive) and liquid supplements. I also have more energy when I’m taking 1000mg vitamin D supplements. If you live someplace that isn’t sunny and/or wear a lot of sunblock, vitamin D deficiency might be an issue.

  8. Oh, look what I found …
    Dr. Sills has a contact page if anyone is interested in emailing her with any kind of “Are you kidding me, with your psychologist credentials, supporting a ‘Let’s Bully Fat Children’ campaign?1?” type of message …

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