A series of blunt anti-obesity ads featuring miserable, overweight children has sparked controversy in Georgia and throughout the United States. The ads feature youngsters talking about their weight issues in between meant-to-shock messages such as, “Some diseases aren’t just for adults anymore,” and “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.” Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which co-founded the Strong4Life ad campaign, intended for the ads to be grim, hoping the clips would help parents recognize the severity of the obesity epidemic in Georgia, where it is the second highest in the nation.
While the statistics on childhood obesity are alarming to say the least, so are the statistics of obese parents. “Weight stigmatization is widespread in our society and affects individuals in multiple domains of life, often on a daily basis,” says Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. She goes on to say: “We know from decades of research that children and adults are targets of weight stigmatization in educational institutions, employment settings, health care facilities, the media, and even from family members and friends. This has a devastating effect on people’s quality of life, and leads to numerous consequences for emotional and physical health.”
While “sugar coating” any serious epidemic is unwise, trying to shock a population by displaying “in-your-face” billboards and other enlarged photos of unhappy children who are extremely overweight is not the answer to this epidemic. The impact such ads and campaigns could have on the children themselves is serious and capable of causing shame, guilt and emotional harm. These children are already sad and discouraged enough. They need understanding, compassion and education. They need to see signs of hope and opportunities for taking healthy action. They need support and education. They need mentors who are healthy themselves. And they need to be accepted for the person they are before criticism, pity or some other form of rejection is displayed.
Having worked with obesity for over 25 years in my consulting and coaching practice, I know one thing for sure: no one who is obese wants to be that way. The extra pounds are not the issue – though health and wellness are certainly a large part of the situation. The true issue is why do individuals, young or older, turn to food for emotional support, distraction or other reasons rather than true hunger? What are we, as adults, teaching our children about health and wellness? And how is it that we have allowed the abundance of fast foods into our cities, schools and group organizations? Children are learning how to be obese from the adults in their lives. They need examples, tough love and ways they can learn about being healthy and staying healthy.
Targeting the children is a mistake. And drawing attention to the problem rather than to solution is ineffective and potentially hurtful. A problem cannot be solved on the same level as it was created. This is not about the pounds as much as it is about how the pounds got there and how it is that this epidemic continues to escalate. What is missing in the lives of these children? What can we create, as wise adults, that will reach all children and be an impressive, effective and sustainable intervention? We, as parents, mentors, educators, must take an active role in healing obesity and preventing its reoccurrence.
Perhaps the anti-obesity campaign of Georgia has aroused enough attention and emotion to reach many people and to truly make a difference: not by portraying miserable children but by raising awareness and inviting other ways of dealing with this very serious epidemic?
What if each individual, each family, each school and each institution that is connected with children begins immediately to design a healthy living manifesto: a carefully written strategic plan incorporating principles, policies and intentions for teaching children healthy living skills, including guidelines for lifetime health and wellness? What if each of us did what it takes to put health first in our own lives, in whatever way possible? What if we took action, let go of excuses and began, today, to mentor health and well-being?
Parents, I invite you and your children to undertake the 21 Days of Eating Mindfully Challenge and, as a family, learn how to implement mindful eating practices into your daily life. This 21-day journey, designed to encourage and support you in changing unwanted and unhealthy eating habits, is not a diet or an overnight cure. Rather, it is an opportunity to inquire more deeply within, providing the keys to establishing a healthy, loving relationship with yourself and enjoying a favorable weight shift and wise eating choices as a natural result and a sustainable outcome. With mindful awareness, it is possible to let go of the belief that eating or not eating will take away hurt, disappointment, loneliness – boredom, anger, emptiness. With mindful awareness, you will stop using food for anything other than nourishment and healthy enjoyment. Healthy living starts today, are you ready?