Three Steps to Transform the National Weight Debate

By Claire Mysko, Media Literacy and Body Image Expert

The United States has issues when it comes to food, weight, and body image. There are an estimated 24 million people who suffer with eating disorders (a growing number of them are children), and even more Americans who fall into gray areas of disordered eating. Then of course there is the much-discussed problem of obesity. Add it all up and we’re talking about a serious public health crisis. So what can we do about it? Experts in the fields of eating disorder and obesity prevention came together this week in Washington, D.C. to propose solutions. Here’s my roundup and analysis of key recommendations from “Pounds & Policy: Effectively Communicating About Weight and Health,” a panel discussion co-hosted by the National Eating Disorders Association and the STOP Obesity Alliance.

1. Start talking about Obesities (as in plural)
Chevese Turner is the founder and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA). A recovered binge eater herself, she stressed that there are many different ways that individuals reach weights that are considered obese. Some are disordered eaters (she estimates that 70% of her organization’s constituents are overweight), others have limited knowledge of or access to fresh, healthy food, while others might be naturally larger in size and lead healthy, active lives. The current strategy of talking about a scary, monolithic obesity epidemic and holding weight loss up as the magic fix-it is not getting us anywhere. We need to look at the complex and varied reasons why people are obese and we need to offer complex and varied treatments that get to the root of those reasons. And while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge that fat is not necessarily an indicator of poor health, just as thinness isn’t necessarily an indicator of good health. Not all fat people need to get thinner in order to be healthy.

2. Stop With the Fat Shaming Already!
You know what really irks me? News segments about “the war on obesity” that rely on footage of larger-sized Americans innocently going about their business, unaware that they’ve been transformed into Headless Fatties (or the slightly less ubiquitous Blurred Face Fatties). These are the media images that have come to represent obesity in this country. They are representations based on shame, and according to Dr. Rebecca M. Puhl, Director of Research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, they’re not encouraging anyone to be healthier. In numerous studies, Puhl and her colleagues have concluded that stigmatizing obesity actually impairs obesity prevention efforts.

To see one of the most frightening examples of how this is playing out, you can look at what’s happening in schools. Several parents of teens recently reported that their children suddenly started sneaking food and exhibiting an irrational fear of fat after participating in a “Healthy Food Program” at school.  And this is not an isolated incident. Across the U.S., students are being weighed (often in front of their classmates) and sent home with BMI report cards. Kids with “failing” grades are humiliated and parents are routinely shamed into putting their children on diets, which can trigger eating disorders and lead to future weight gain.

“Longitudinal studies show that dieting predicts weight gain over time. Many overweight people have fallen into a lifelong cycle of short-term deprivation followed by overeating,” said Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor of public health at the University of Minnesota and author of I’m, Like, SO Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World. That unhealthy cycle, fueled by cultural stigma, has made the diet and food industries billions of dollars–the kind of dough that pays for all those advertising messages about “simple” weight loss systems and “indulgent” treats. Which brings me to the next step…

3. Expose the Lies and False Claims of the Diet Industry
It’s important to get the good science publicized by providing succinct and compelling information to reporters, as Sarah Kliff, health care reporter for Politico suggested. However, that’s an uphill battle when you look at just how much power the diet and food industries wield.

“Mainstream media aren’t motivated to talk about how diets contribute to poor health because they depend on advertising dollars from these industries,” said Jean Kilbourne, a longtime media critic and author of the seminal Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. The food and diet industries are also powerful lobbies in Washington, which means that their interests are represented in health policy, often above the best interests of the public. But giants have been toppled before.

“With tobacco, it wasn’t about repeating the message that smoking is bad for your health or telling people not to smoke. What it took was a movement of people who were angry that they’d been manipulated,” said Kilbourne. That movement really picked up steam with the success of a counter-advertising campaign called truth, which engages youth and sparks consumer activism through media literacy. From their website:

Our philosophy isn’t anti-smoker or pro-smoker. It’s not even so much about smoking. It’s about an industry manipulating it’s products facts and advertising to replace the 1200 customers they “lose” every day. You, know, because they die.

The truth campaign has been able to penetrate people’s consciousness because of this approach, but also because it is well-funded. Very well-funded. The campaign is a project of the American Legacy Foundation, formed as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and 46 states. It was the biggest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history, with Big Tobacco agreeing to pay the states billions of dollars. And a chunk of that change has covered the costs of the truth campaign.

Ah, imagine a day when the Dexatrims and Slimfasts of the world would be forced to bankroll advertising that revealed just how dangerous, unhealthy, and scientifically-proven-to-FAIL their products really are. Imagine if the Jenny Craigs and the Nutrisystems were no longer able to hide behind that “results not typical” asterisk. Imagine if we were finally able to get the real picture of how we’ve been duped into thinking that dieting will make us happier and healthier, when the truth is that it’s making us sick.

Cross-posted with permission by the author, Claire Mysko.

Related Content:

Girls and Dieting: Then and Now

Scale Back: It’s International No Diet Day!

How Diets Decrease Your Self-Esteem and Not Your Size!

3 thoughts on “Three Steps to Transform the National Weight Debate

  1. I don’t mind the article, but I do agree with Greg. I am a smoker that lights up every time I see the “truth” campaign ads.

  2. Although this article is almost completely laughable, I’d like to point out that the “Truth” campaign is so annoying that most people I know say it makes them want to go smoke out of spite.

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