Then the boy asks a question.
“Mom, why am I fat?”
It’s a television commercial — one that may be familiar to many Anniston residents. This stark, black-and-white image is part of an anti-obesity campaign that has been under way, just across the Georgia line, for months.
The commercial is one of several ads from Strong4Life, a $50 million multi-year campaign to get parents in Georgia to confront the problem of childhood obesity. Strong4Life has inspired a groundswell of opposition from fat-acceptance activists and online commenters, demonstrating the cultural gulf between public health officials and the people they’re trying to reach.
A project of the nonprofit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and several other agencies, Strong4Life opened with a series of billboards featuring troubled-looking, overweight kids with jolting captions underneath. “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not,” reads one billboard. “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid,” reads another.
Supporters of Strong4Life say the ad campaign was designed to shock Georgia out of its complacency about children’s health.
“We’re second in the nation in childhood obesity,” said Dr. Stephanie Walsh, a pediatrician with Children’s Healthcare and spokeswoman for Strong4Life. “We’re seeing children with diabetes, hypertension and fatty liver disease. Parents should be concerned.”
Walsh said Strong4Life created the campaign — modeled after shock-effect ad campaigns against smoking and crystal meth — after conducting focus groups with parents and finding that three-fourths of parents couldn’t tell when a kid was overweight. Parents were shown a series of pictures of children at various weights, Walsh said, and asked to identify the kids who were healthy.
“If the kids were happy in the picture, the parents discounted the weight,” Walsh said. She said the images were intended to be jarring, and to move parents to take action.
But the action they inspired may not have been what the ad’s creators expected. Bloggers, activists and Facebookers filled the Internet with spoofs, heated critiques, and even an alternate, homemade series of online ads called Stand4Kids.
“There’s a lot of science to show that stigmatization doesn’t do any good in motivating kids to lose weight,” said Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a leader in the push against the billboards.
Howell and other critics say the billboards reinforce negative stereotypes against overweight kids, making them more vulnerable to bullying and even giving verbal ammunition to the bullies. The ads run a real risk of promoting eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, Howell said.
She was a fat kid herself, Howell said, and while she played actively and helped her parents maintain a two-acre vegetable garden that kept fresh food on the table, she was always heavier than the norm. She said health programs that focus on a target weight are misguided, particularly for growing kids. The psychological damage done by labeling big kids, she said, will likely do more harm than good.
“This is a fat-shaming, fat-berating campaign,” she said.
“I run an obesity clinic,” she said. “And I’ve never given a weight goal.”
Walsh said it’s true that stigmatizing kids won’t work, and she said that was never the intent of the ad campaign. The real purpose of Strong4Life, she said, was to get parents to take action, ideally by calling a doctor to ask about their children’s weight. She said the program has trained hundreds of doctors how to effectively talk to kids and parents about weight loss.
“It’s a conversation, between the parent, the child and the doctor,” she said. Walsh said that the best practice is for doctors to talk to kids and parents with the goal of selecting one simple change they can make to lose weight.
It’s easy, she said, for people to become intimidated by a long list of lifestyle changes, and if kids identify the change they want to make, they’re more likely to stick with it.
So why doesn’t the ad campaign reflect that more gentle approach?
Walsh said the billboards were just a start. A new phase, focused on kids changing their health habits, will launch soon, she said. Already, some billboards are offering advice such as “Choose fruit, not fruit-flavored.”
Both sides in the Strong4Life debate seem to see themselves as Davids, fighting an advertising Goliath. For Walsh, the ad campaign is an important counterpoint to massive ad campaigns pushing fast food — campaigns that tell kids, not so subtly, that eating will make them happy.
“Think of the Happy Meal, or Coca-Cola’s ‘Open Happiness’ slogan, or ‘Good Mood Food,” she said.
But Howell, the fat-acceptance advocate, points out that her organization is an all-volunteer effort. The spoof ads and Internet critiques of Strong4Life all came from average people, she said, people who are tired of big-media messages about food, exercise and body size.
“We have allowed big business to promote things that are bad for us, and now we allow another big business to condemn us for it,” she said. “We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.