Size Activists Shed Light on Fat Shaming Campaign


by Jennifer Jonassen


This is only one of the incendiary campaign slogans Strong4Life is admittedly using to shock parents into putting their children on diets. Other slogans include: WARNING FAT PREVENTION STARTS AT HOME. AND THE BUFFET LINE and WARNING ITS HARD TO BE A LITTLE GIRL WHEN YOU’RE NOT.

For about nine months children and adults in Atlanta have been subjected to these degrading and ridiculing posters, TV ads and billboards.  The Strong4Life ad campaign is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital’s five-year, $25 million initiative designed to curb childhood obesity in Georgia. Luckily activist Marilyn Wann, who I previously interviewed for Adios Barbie, hasn’t forgotten or become complacent to the fact that these toxic messages are planting seeds into countless minds of children and adults.

It all started when Ms. Wann posted a picture of herself with this slogan: I STAND AGAINST HARMING FAT CHILDREN. HATE DOES NOT EQUAL HEALTH. She invited others to submit pictures and slogans as well and was ecstatic when they started to flood her inbox. Soon, hundreds of gorgeous empowering photos started turning up on the web, each with their own exquisitely unique representation. (Submit your photos as well.)

My personal favorite STANDard is a picture of a cute curly haired girl stating: I STAND FOR THE RIGHT TO LOVE MYSELF INSIDE & OUT. Talk about a revolutionary statement. Wow, imagine if we could all really do that? All I know is that the past two or three weeks since the I STAND campaign launched I have felt more empowered than ever. I find myself letting go of some of the shame I still carry to this day. I love seeing so many beautiful vital fat people and thin people standing up for compassion and love. I wonder what it would’ve meant in my life- what a positive impact it might have made- if these images were available to me growing up.

Strong4Life defends itself by saying: “We know the tone of the campaign is harsh, but the status quo isn’t working.” I actually have to agree with the last part of that statement. What Strong4Life doesn’t get is that their campaign is actually the very personification of the status quo itself. Cruelty, shame and fear have been the only way weight has been handled in our culture thus far. And THAT is what has not worked.

Since these kinds of “war against obesity” campaigns have cropping up I have felt incredibly alienated in my own country. I feel unwelcome here simply because I don’t fit into a manufactured ideal of perfection. There have been actual moments when I have found myself reacting in panic to people who feel justified in yelling out to me, “keep eating that way and you’ll die fatty.” To which I’ve armed myself with the response, “Actually, death does not discriminate.” If only they hadn’t sped off in their car before I could unleash my lesson. I’m sure these hate mongers and Strong4Life feel  justified given that every image we see in the media promotes unattainable thinness and size prejudice. Even our president’s wife is promoting weight loss these days. (Though I feel I must stress it’s really hard for me to imagine Mrs. Obama supporting Strong4Life’s tactics.)

Still, I would feel better if someone like Marilyn Wann, Pattie Thomas, Linda Bacon or any of the many leading academics and scholars on the topic were at least consulted and included in ALL of these campaigns. Health is never the focus of these campaigns. Only weight loss. I’m not an expert but I know from personal experience that growing up fat even in a world without Strong4Life’s billboards was profoundly painful. By the time I was five years old I was cognizant of the fact that I was undesirable and had no worth. I watched all three of my younger sisters mercilessly bullied for years. By the time I was 13 I attempted suicide with Dexatrim diet pills. By high school I opted for the GED and dropped out to avoid even more abuse. So these well meant, but misguided efforts go on and on, only adding to the very frightening world of bullying, eating disorders and suicides.

According Rebecca Puhl, PhD of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, anti-obesity ads that shame and stigmatize parents are ineffective and can actually make the problem worse, It is important to improve children’s physical well-being, but not harm their psychological health. Studies the Rudd Center have done also have shown that shame tactics not only fail but actually lead to weight gain.

I posted my STANDard to Strong4Life’s wall a couple of weeks ago to which they replied “If the page keeps getting spammed and meaningful dialogue about the medical risks of childhood obesity is diluted with spoof ads, we will clean it up.”

To which I responded, “This is no spoof I can assure you. This is a different perspective to your approach to health. Does movement and exercise not count unless it is strictly for the purpose of health/weight only? Please take into consideration the question of the mental health of everyone exposed to your billboards. No one is questioning or criticizing your organization for wanting to better children’s health. But we are responding to your billboards which are damaging. I mean let’s compare messages here, ‘Warning fat prevention starts at home. And the buffet line.’ or ‘ I STAND FOR JOYFUL MOVEMENT & ENCOURAGING KIDS TO DANCE JUST FOR FUN.’ Now, which one is the spoof?”

They never answered. And then, they deleted my post.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could delete their hateful messages just as easily? Since we can’t, my fellow activist Ragen Chastain has set up a fund alongside Marilyn Wann and Shannon Russell to put our own billboard chock full of life affirming STANDards up in Georgia! It was such a joyous moment when in less than 24 hours we raised enough money to launch our first billboard! We are still desperately seeking dollar donations to help unlock More Of Me To Love‘s  generous offer to donate $5,000 if we receive 1,000 pledges. Donate your solidarity dollar to the campaign and believe me it will feel empowering and will be the best buck you ever spent! Be a part of history and most importantly, no matter where you stand on the debate, be a voice for compassion–not shame.



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