Hatred Does Not Equal Health: Ending Fat Shaming

“I stand for a life free of shame for all little girls.”

“I stand for happy, healthy children–no matter their size.”

“I stand against social stigma and the right to be happy just as you are.”

These are powerful statements, and just a few of the many “STANDards” (above right) assembled by Marilyn Wann and other fat acceptance activists in opposition to a problematic fat shaming public-health campaign initiated by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (above left).

The controversial Children’s Healthcare campaign, called Strong4Life, features posters and billboards depicting depressed-looking fat children with slogans like, “It’s hard to be a little girl, if you’re not.”

These poster children, it turns out, are actually healthy actors and models. They do not have the health problems referenced in some of the ads–a fact which further contradicts the message that all fat children are unhealthy and unhappy. But the ads legitimize the bullying and shaming that fat children regularly face, while reinforcing the perception that change is needed not in the culture but in the individual.

The “STANDards” are just one among many forms of protest aimed at the Strong4Life campaign, but they are of particular interest for feminists. Penned by individuals (at this point mostly women) the messages bring into focus some important patterns in fat shaming.

No one disagrees with the aim of creating healthy kids. Yet many of the “STANDards” point out that an obsession with the number on the scale and a fear that one is taking up too much space are unhealthy. Those who’ve created “STANDards” are fighting back against the messages of shame, blame and ridicule being put forth under the banner of health improvement. Another “STANDard” reads: “I stand against harming fat children. Hate does not equal health.”

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Board president Doug Hertz, has heard the criticism and remains firm. He offered an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on January 12 saying that the campaign gets people talking about a topic that deserves attention. He offered an unreferenced statistic that 80 percent of those who’ve seen the ads agree with the approach and 11 percent don’t.

This high approval rating, if accurate, stands to reason, given that the ads are playing on entrenched cultural values that cast fat people as deserving shame, and that position certain bodies as deviant–in need of correction. These sentiments may be comfortable and familiar, but they have nothing to do with children’s health. As it turns out, fat bodies are not linked with poor health either; a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle are. Anyone, fat or thin, can suffer from lack of healthy food and exercise.

I don’t think this type of fat shaming is what Michelle Obama had in mind when she initiated the Let’s Move! campaign, which celebrated its two-year anniversary yesterday. The four main tenets of that campaign are not focused on fat kids, nor their presumably incompetent caregivers. Instead, Let’s Move’s precepts are:

1) Get parents more informed about nutrition and exercise.

2) Improve the quality of food in schools.

3) Make healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families.

4) Focus more on physical education.

And yet, what some have renamed the “war on childhood obesity” has unwittingly validated some familiar forms of gender discrimination. In the discussion of obesity, we can’t ignore the longstanding precedent that women’s bodies must be controlled, shrunk to near invisibility and reshaped to fit a social standard of beauty that few can healthily maintain. We also can’t ignore the cultural standard for placing blame on children’s caregivers (mostly their mothers) for their poor health and poverty.

Many of the “STANDards” point out that health and body size do not correlate–but discrimination and body size do. In her recent book Fat Shame: Stigma and Fat Body in American Culture (NYU Press, 2011), Amy Erdman Farrell draws on a wide range of sources–including popular literature, political cartoons, advertisements and physician’s manuals–to present the case that our historic denigration of fatness emerged long before it was linked to health concerns. Her work also focuses on feminism’s relationship to fatness, and its intersections with other forms of body stigma. Farrell points out that those who seek to be rid of stigmatized identities–whether related to gender, race, ethnicity or class–will often take up the cause of weight loss and fat hatred in order to validate their own claims to normalcy.

The Stand4EveryBody campaign also addresses these intersections, but from a personal and political rather than scholarly standpoint. Some of the photos accompanying the “STANDards” show fat bodies, some thin, some disabled, some young, some old. They show people of different races and different physical presentations. Check them out! There are instructions for submitting your own “STANDard” as well.

Fighting fat shame and stigma is a big job, and these efforts have the potential of reaching beyond a single media campaign. And yes, the pun was intended.

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Kimberly Dark is a writer, professor and raconteur, working to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life so that we can reclaim our power as social creators. She’s the author of Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old, The Daddies and Love and Errors, and her essays, stories and poetry are widely published in academic and popular online publications alike. Her ability to make the personal political is grounded in her training as a sociologist, and you can find her course offerings in Sociology at Cal State San Marcos and Writing/Arts at Cal State Summer Arts. kimberlydark.com