A co-worker recently sent me a link to a video that opens with a medical team bustling around a 32 year old man suffering from a heart attack. The video is shown from the patient’s point of view. As the oxygen mask is lowered onto his face, a man in scrubs asks what they are dealing with. A woman describes the patient’s age, weight, and condition. The man in scrubs asks, “How the hell does that happen?” The video then rewinds through the patient’s life: a super cut of sedentary living and copious amounts of junk food leading all the way back to his infancy. The video ends with the text: “Your child’s future doesn’t have to look like this. There’s still time to reverse the unhealthy habits our kids take into adulthood.” The video is by Strong4Life, a “wellness movement” from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta that provides resources for families to eat more nutritious food and be more physically active in the hopes of reducing the rate of obesity in Georgia.
The video seems to be taking a page out of the smoking cessation handbook (here’s another example from the same CDC campaign) and attempts to shock viewers with a sobering picture of the complications of obesity. While these PSA tactics are not new, obesity is a complicated issue that is often unfairly boiled down to the unacceptable stereotype that those considered overweight or obese are lazy and lacking in self-control. When I pressed play, I was worried that the video would promote that stereotype. Indeed, it certainly seems that way. The first several shots include the patient scooping ice cream, pouring soda, snacking at his desk, wolfing down fast food, and resting a drink on his stomach as he reclines to watch TV.
As the video progresses, I was somewhat relieved to see depicted at least some of the societal factors related to the rise in obesity. For example, two shots illustrate our acceptance of using candy as part of a reward system. Additionally, a tray with a can of soda, two corn dogs, and unappetizing miscellaneous slop serves as a brief criticism of school lunches. Yet these short moments of clarity are still buried within the same old narrative. According to the video (and the overall content of the Strong4Life website and resources), while other societal factors may be at play, the overarching message seems to be that people are ultimately fat because their parents are lazy and won’t say no – which translates into a lack of self-control throughout one’s life. Upholding this stereotype, and the messages of guilt and shame that accompany it, is neither productive nor humane.
While eating healthy meals and being physically active as a family are most certainly commendable goals, shaming or trying to scare parents, kids, and individuals who are overweight or obese demonstrates a willful ignorance of the whole picture. Why is obesity more complicated than personal responsibility? We live in a time where health halos abound, nutrition labelling needs to be revamped, school lunches are controversial at best, someone is always promising a magic solution for weight loss, and conflicts of interest are the norm rather than the exception. All of this makes it very difficult for people to make informed decisions, despite their best intentions. To continue on the topic of conflicts of interest, a look at Strong4Life’s partners shows that the Arby’s Foundation is one of the project’s top donors. It’s no surprise that the food and beverage industry benefits from the narrative of obesity being caused by over-indulgence. Coca-Cola, for example, regularly paints themselves as champions of the cause by focusing on portion control and physical activity. Although it is unreasonable to expect most corporations to admit that their product is bad for you– I do think you can raise an eyebrow at the organizations that jeopardize their credibility by partnering with them.
The scare tactics of anti-tobacco campaigns, as well as banning smoking from public places, aim to denormalize smoking. In tandem with these campaigns has been an increase in support and resources for those who want to quit as well as tighter legislation against tobacco companies and how they can market their products. Applying scare tactics to lower the rate of obesity and its complications fails to account for the fact that society has already decided, sadly, that being overweight or obese is shameful. Despite the high percentage of Canadians living with overweight or obesity, it is still culturally denormalized. We recognize that tobacco companies need to be held accountable for the claims they make about their products and the government has made an effort to make it more difficult for tobacco to be marketed to kids (whether this effort is enough is a debate for another day). While obesity may not be the new tobacco, the fight against tobacco use can help to inform efforts to lower the rate of obesity. This does not mean that we should mindlessly copy anti-tobacco campaigns but, rather, we need to consider the entire picture. What it may mean is creating or toughening up legislation around issues such as marketing unhealthy foods to children, allowable product claims, or warning labels. To improve the health of our communities, we need to hold the food and beverage industry accountable.
By Aaryn Secker
Aaryn earned her BEd at McGill University and her MEd at Brock University. She is currently the Education and Communications Coordinator at Heart Niagara.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in blog entries are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Heart Niagara.