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.

9 thoughts on “Size Activists Shed Light on Fat Shaming Campaign

  1. I think childhood obesity is a serious social issue both for the economy (rising health care costs) and for the individuals themselves (chronic health diseases). Instead of focusing on reducing soda bottle sizes and harsh ad campaigns- the dialogue should really be focused on ways to encourage leading a healthy lifestyle holistically. More social good can be done not by accusing a well-intentioned campaign for perpetuating poor body image but rather acknowledging the fact that a good majority of Americans ARE OBESE (this is a matter of health not body image) and looking for ways to counter this trend. We are not talking about healthy weight people who hates their bodies b/c they don’t look like Victoria Secret’s models. We are talking about American’s who are morbidly obese and/or have a very unhealthy BMI index and continue to eat highly processed foods, too much meat products, and have a sedentary lifestyle leading to diabetes, heart attacks, cholesterol, and a host of other nasty health issues.

    Was this ad campaign controversial? Perhaps- it’s subjective. But if it’s bringing attention and awareness to this issue then it’s doing more good than harm.

    Just look at this simple chart about portion sizes in the 1950’s vs today:

    Bottom line- obesity was NEVER and SHOULD NOT be the norm. This current trend is caused by the evolution of big agro (have you looked at the billions of subsidies in the farm bill?!) on a political level and poor choices on the individual level. Please don’t confuse/distract readers from the dialogue on childhood obesity by attacking it as an evil vehicle for poor body image.

  2. Awesome article, Jennifer. When the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital first posted these billboards, I was horrified, but was also aware that the ideas they express are typical of those within the “anti-obesity” community. I could understand why they developed those attitudes in this cultural context. It was possible to consider that the people working on the Strong4Life campaign were good, well-intended, people, but so misguided that they ended up doing bad stuff. But we’ve turned a corner here. They can’t be oblivious to the harm they are doing anymore. The people have spoken. The strength of the Stand 4 Life campaign is powerful. I’m awed by the emotion that’s burst forth from the resistance. And its particularly powerful that it all comes from love and acceptance.

  3. when I first saw these harmful billboards, and over the past year realizing that the organization putting them up was going to reap $5 million to continue to humiliate fat children in public, I felt sad and angry!

    The “I STAND” images have inspired me tremendously, and I am so proud of everyone who donated to put up counter-billboards with positive messages. We are definitely in a David versus Goliath situation here, but standing up to bullies all together in a group will hopefully result in some children in Atlanta and elsewhere receiving a positive, self affirming message!

    I remember reading somewhere that if an abused child can find just one adult to champion her or his right to to be treated fairly, it make all the difference.

    Thanks Adiosbarbie for your great post about this campaign!

  4. as author of this article I wanted to update the readers to the fact that since this article was published- in an unprecedented move- the NIH National Institute of Health has spoken out against Strong4Life’s tactics. To which their response was:

    Letter from NIH denouncing tactics:

    Strong4Life’s response: “We appreciate everyone’s perspective on this crisis – especially the NIH – because it is going to take incredible momentum to solve this crisis – much more than a short series of ads. In Georgia we know there is a disconnect between the reality of our childhood obesity crisis and the personal acknowledgment of the associated health risks. The discomfort people have with these ads is further evidence of this.

    While our critics presume to know the effects our ads will have on families and kids in Georgia, our physicians see the true effects of childhood obesity in our clinics every single day. The reality is that nearly 40 percent of kids ages 10-17 in Georgia are overweight or obese and have an increased chance of suffering from serious illnesses like fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes. [emphasis mine]

    These ads are accomplishing their objective: raising the dialogue on childhood obesity. But Strong4Life is much more than just an ad campaign; it is a movement that involves the entire community, delivering programs and creating partnerships. We needed the ads to spark the conversation around this issue. Awareness and intent to change are only the first steps in the fight against childhood obesity. People have to take personal responsibility.”

  5. Thanks AdiosBarbie, for covering this important issue. Strong4Life is now playing whack-a-mole with its detractors (I am among the lastest posters whose opinions were expunged from the “Strong4Life” Facebook page) but more keep coming up. Not that I’m suggesting people go there and post … let’s just say I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it. The fight is definitely not over.

  6. Disgusting. Seeing their ads only brought up the feelings of shame I had as a “fat” kid. How is this supposed to inspire people or motivate them to lose weight? Bullying doesn’t solve anything.

    And before anyone tries to use my weight as a reason why I’m offended (since they have done this in the past) — I’m actually at the low weight range for my height now and my body fat % is considered athletic, so no, you can’t say I’m offended because I’m “fat.” In fact, my outrage should be an even bigger sign to Strong4Life, since someone who would be described as healthy/ideal to them thinks their message is offensive and disgusting.

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