Balancing a health-campaign with body-positivity campaign
A young girl, heavy-set with her arms folded across her chest and her features twisted into a mean mug, stares straight ahead in a black and white poster. The caption: “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not,” is written across the bottom.
That poster, and two others just like it have appeared on billboards, buses and train platforms with captions such as: “Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line,” and, “My fat may be funny to you, but it’s killing me.”
The ads, put out by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, have stirred controversy in the continued debate over what the media call “fat shaming,” in conjunction with new struggles to combat the supposed obesity “epidemic” in the United States.
The obesity “epidemic” has been a hot-button topic of the 2000s, at its height becoming the focal point of former first lady Michelle Obama’s platform in the White House.
“In the last twenty years scientific, medical, and public health interest in obesity has skyrocketed,” writes Dr. Natalie Boero, a professor of sociology at San Jose State University.
Boero has written a book titled Killer Fat, about how the media has framed obesity in the terms of a traditional epidemic, creating moral panic and decreasing quality health care approaches. Her research comes at a time when the number of overweight people in the world has surpassed that of underweight people–a global tipping point that has ushered in new problems unknown to previous generations.
One of those problems is fat shaming. A phenomenon widely discussed in the era of the epidemic and in the dawn of the Internet, fat shaming has started to occur in large numbers, both online and in real life.
“Renee Engeln, a psychology professor and the director of the Northwestern University’s Body and Media Lab, notes that our image-heavy (pardon the pun) culture has brought out the critic in everybody.” Todd Leopold writes in a CNN article from 2016, “We’ve always cared about appearance, particularly for women, but technology has made the focus stronger than ever.”
It is a common belief throughout Western medicine that obesity has adverse health effects, leading to a justified sense of alarm. Stanford Health Care states on their website that obesity can lead to an increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and bone and joint disease. In order to treat the aforementioned ailments requires doctors time and added stress for patients. That’s why there have been advocacy campaigns to mitigate what is largely a preventable condition.
Campaigns have included the aforementioned posters, speaking engagements at schools by health advocates, government restrictions on school diets, corporate weight loss incentives, and edgy documentaries.
In a 2012 Newsweek article, journalist Gary Taubes, asserts, “The problem is, the solutions this multi-level campaign promotes are the same ones that have been used to fight obesity for a century—and they just haven’t worked.”
Taubes goes on to be vindicated in this claim, with a concession by from a National Institute of Health head saying, “We are struggling to figure this out.”
The media that are covering these efforts relay their messages, becoming an echo-chamber of anti-fat heralders of health.
A study by Paul Komesaroff and others of the Centre for the Study of Ethics in Medicine and Society looked at the experiences of obese people and perceived adversity.
“Participants described in detail the pervasive culture of blame and shame that they believed was directed at obese individuals in news reporting using words such as ‘ridicule,’ ‘mocking’ ‘unfair,’ ‘discriminatory,’ ‘alienating,’ ‘derogatory’,’ spectacle,’ ‘ exploiting,’ ‘offensive,’ ‘vile,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘humiliating,’ ‘belittled,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘sensationalism’, ‘dehumanizing,’ and ‘taunting.’ Many described how the discrimination evident within news reporting went almost exclusively unchallenged.”
So, in all of this, there seems to be a fine line between shame and advocacy. A fat acceptance movement has cropped up to combat the shamers. The central claim being that any size can be healthy, and some people can’t help being big.
The science on both sides of the fat and fit argument differ significantly. Some studies say it is possible to be metabolically healthy, while being overweight, and others say it’s impossible.
Perhaps both sides need to approach the issue with more nuance. What is left at the end of the day is obesity can have some nasty side-effects, but not for everyone. And intense health campaigns perhaps unrightfully shame people who are either overweight through no fault of their own or just don’t give a fuck about society’s idealistic standards.
Anna Lamb is a third year Journalism major who’s on a mission to shame the shamers. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.