Killing the Childhood Obesity Messengers, Part 2

One of the kids' play areas

We were tracing the story of the state of Georgia’s aggressive Strong4Life ad campaign against childhood obesity. In early February, the Fierce, Freethinking Fatties website published news from one of its members, about correspondence with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

This person repeatedly asked the NICHD to condemn the Georgia campaign. Initially, the agency said it could not, because official policy forbids employees from either condemning or endorsing. Except when they decide to, that is. The person was astonished to get an email from the director of the NICHD himself, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, which said:

I agree with you that this campaign carries a great risk of increasing stigma for those children who are overweight or obese which, in turn, can reinforce unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating)… Studies suggest that overweight children who are teased about their appearance are more likely to binge eat or use unhealthy weight-control practices, and weight-based victimization has been correlated with lower levels of physical activity. Not surprisingly, stigmatization of obese individuals, particularly adolescents, poses risks to their psychological health.

Guttmacher makes the point that, regardless of what people may believe, obesity is not totally a matter of personal responsibility. There are complex contributing factors, he says, and while that is not incorrect, it’s also a convenient escape hatch, because when any one factor is blamed, its defenders can say, “No, the problem must be one of those other complex contributing factors.”

The Fierce, Freethinking Fatties position is:

This is an unprecedented condemnation by the NIH of a private healthcare organization’s public health campaign. When the NIH begins bending rules to send a message that you are harming children, it’s time to listen.

Within days, Strong4Life made news again. Hanna Brooks Olsen writes:

They’re back with a new ad that equates weight problems and heart disease in adulthood with unhealthy habits developed as a child, asserting that parents who feed their kids fast food and let them lead sedentary lives are basically killing them.

Olsen’s page includes the video, titled “Stop the Cycle.” She surveyed the comments left by some of the 40,000 people who had viewed the clip within its first five days of availability. Most of the comments, she says, “reflect Strong4Life’s desired effect.” In other words, parents are being reached, and an impression is being made.

Not long afterward, the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals made its feelings known, critiquing the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta ads thusly:

CHOA’s campaign stigmatizes children struggling with their weight by shaming them. The images of the children in these ads prey upon an imagined ignorance, play on racial stereotypes, and diminish hope for a solution.

The foundation says that being shamed can result in low self-esteem, negative body image, eating disorders, and a reluctance on the part of overweight patients to go in for routine checkups. What nobody really seems to have proven, however, is that the ad campaign actually does have a “shaming” effect on obese children, or that it is responsible for an increase in bullying. According to its supporters, it is merely informative.

There is another sensitive angle. For picturing children of obvious ethnicity, the campaign is accused of racial stereotyping, which is nonsensical for two reasons. First, it has been scientifically shown that black and Hispanic children are at particular risk for obesity and its consequent life-long health problems. Their representation is indisputably in line with reality.

Second, just imagine if all the children chosen for the campaign had been white. Then, there would be complaints of exclusion and discrimination, and angry parents demanding to know why no dark-skinned kids were receiving those nice modeling fees.

Dr. Pretlow suggests that there exists in our culture a certain amount of resentment toward the fitness ideal. And since denial is such a large part of human nature, people who use food as a sedating drug are the least likely to recognize that they may be addicted to comfort-eating. Some people are hypersensitive, and one of the reasons for their tetchiness is that they are kidding themselves.

It’s very easy to scoff and say, “I just don’t have that model type of body build, and neither do most women.” The truth is, a person can change amazingly. It takes the willingness to stop using food as a coping mechanism for the problems of life. It takes effort and self-awareness, and sometimes therapy, but it can be done.

Can a bold, frank, outspoken campaign like Strong4Life be effective in fighting childhood obesity? Dr. Pretlow says, “Absolutely. The truth shall set you free.”

Education about healthy eating is certainly not enough. It is, he points out, about as useful as addressing alcoholism by educating kids about healthy drinking. It’s all right, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far toward solving the real problems.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Exorcist,” Fierce, Freethinking Fatties, 02/09/12
Source: “Anti-Childhood Obesity Video Would Like You To Know That You Are Killing Your Kid,” Blisstree, 02/20/12
Source: “The Iaedp Foundation Takes Stand Against Stigmatization And Weight Campaign,” i-Newswire, 02/22/12
Image by abbamouse, used under its Creative Commons license.

3 Responses

  1. This is such a difficult issue. I don’t think there is a proven link between the campaign and stigmatization. Overweight and obese kids are already stigmatized. A nice piece of work on the subject appears at Yale’s Rudd Center

    What seems to be important in my mind is making sure the problem is addressed early on in a person’s life. There is a lot of evidence that prolonged periods of being overweight and obese shifts the body’s reaction to metabolizing food and dealing with exercise to the point where it becomes extremely difficult for once obese people to hold a normal weight even when they have achieved that weight through diet and exercise. The old saying “the surest way to gain weight is to go on a diet” seems to be true if you look at the results a year or two after the diet is completed.

    The most important low hanging fruit in moving society to a healthy weight may well be to focus on the young. It is not right to bully or stigmatize anyone but it is right to attempt to move people from extremely unhealthy lifestyles.

    Somehow I don’t think an ad/information campaign can move the needle much. I also don’t think this campaign crosses the line of shaming someone who is already probably experiencing shame. Much deeper programs seem to be in order given the importance of the goal… good nutrition for kids and enough exercise. Once you’ve got that it might be appropriate to work on stereotypes…

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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