Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is Shame a Cure for Obesity?

Georgia's Strong4Life has been creating controversy recently with a series of pointed ads intended to raise awareness about the childhood obesity epidemic. And there is no doubt; childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. In the nation as a whole, the Center for Disease Control states that one in five children is obese with nearly that many adolescents obese as well. For children, that number has more than doubled in the last thirty years; for adolescents it has more than tripled. Georgia, and the Deep South as a whole, are at the center of the problem, with the Peach State ranking second in the nation in childhood obesity rates with approximately 37% of children being overweight or obese. This ranks behind only Mississippi with a obesity rate of more than 44%. Given that childhood obesity continues to be on the rise in Georgia (up 5.6% from 2005 to 2007), it is understandable why the people of Georgia would feel the need to take an extreme approach to combating the problem. Here is the course they've chosen.

Shocking, yes. But the people of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta say that shocking is precisely what is needed to jar Georgians out of their torpor and inspire positive action. Unsurprisingly there are countless detractors, including some notable academics. NPR spoke to one such detractor:

According to Rodney Lyn of Georgia State University's Institute of Public Health, "This campaign is more negative than positive."

Based on his research, Lyn says, the ads can hurt the very market they're targeting. "We know that stigmatization leads to lower self-esteem, potential depression. We know that kids will engage in physical activity less because they feel like they're going to be embarrassed. So there are all these other negative effects," he says.

ABC spoke to another:

"Blaming the victim rarely helps," said Dr. Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "These children know they are fat and that they are ostracized already."

There are countless others, but I think the outrage is largely inappropriate. Labbok, for example, claims that the ads are blaming the victims. Hardly. The ads are blaming the perpetrators, and quit powerfully at that. In one of the video spots (embedded below), an overweight boy and his overweight mother are placed opposite one another. The boy, clearly overwrought, asks his mother, "Why am I fat?" The mother has no answer. It is obvious who the victim is here and who is the "criminal." The ads--all of the ads--are targeted at the parents who, through various forms of negligence and ignorance, are responsible for their children's poor health. Some of the ads are followed by a startling statistics: 75% of parents with overweight children were unaware there was a problem. That sort of willful blindness borders on unconscionable. It takes the faces and voices of overweight children confessing to their parents and to their communities "It's hard to be a little girl when you're not" and "Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid" and "I don't like going to school, cause all the other kids pick on me." It should hurt to watch that. It should eat us up inside because, overwhelmingly, it is within the power of parents and teachers and community leaders to improve if not solve the obesity crisis among children.

The campaign doesn't shame the victims. It shames parents, and they should be ashamed. It is shameful that children are plied constantly with junk food simply because their parents are unwilling to fight the domestic battles necessary to make them eat their vegetables. It is shameful that children's desires for fast food are regularly gratified as we continue to bow to the altar of convenience. It is shameful that we are too lazy to hide the PlayStation or computer power cord and force our children (or ourselves) outdoors for exercise. It is shameful that, as in the case in Georgia, community priorities are so skewed that cutbacks in education target areas like school nutrition, physical education, and recess. There are other culprits. Advertising groups that market unhealthy, inexpensive foods to children stand out. The problem begins and ends at home and in the schools. It is a problem of our making and one of which we ought to be greatly ashamed.

So if you're going to be outraged, why not be outraged that it has come to this? We are at a point as a culture where this kind of melodramatic public spectacle is necessary to shock parents and communities out of ignorance and apathy. If it works and Georgians begin to take control of the obesity epidemic in their state, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is to be congratulated. If it doesn't, well that is just one more thing of which we should all collectively be ashamed.

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