Stop Fat-Shaming Kids (And Everyone Else, Too)

Childhood obesity is a problem we can’t ignore. Over the last 30 years, its rate in the U.S. has more than doubled, with about 1 in 3 children today considered overweight (meaning those with a body mass index at the 85th percentile or higher, according to the National Center for Health Statistics). These kids have a higher chance of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other complications later in their lives.

But telling kids that fat=bad doesn’t solve any of these problems. First 5 (also known as the California Children and Families Commission, funded by a state tobacco tax), which aims to help children ages 0-5 develop in healthy ways, has recently launched a campaign that is plastered on bus stop billboards and reads,

‘Less sugar’ still has too much sugar. Sugary drinks like juice, sports drinks and soda can cause obesity. Choose milk and water instead.

To get its point across, the campaign took a photo that’s featured on its site of a girl drinking milk and photoshopped the image to have the girl appear chubbier as she drinks out of a giant sugar packet (photos above). The image of the chubbier, photoshopped girl appears on posters around California. What this campaign tells us is that sugar makes you fat, and the undeniable implication is that being slim is better. I guess if encouraging kids to get out and play doesn’t work, just shame them into thinking their bodies are wrong.

We don’t need to tell overweight kids they’re fat—trust me, they know. If you were ever an overweight kid yourself or knew a kid who was, you saw how unrelentingly mean other kids are to them. Take, for example, a relative of mine who quit the swim team because he felt too fat to wear a swimsuit. At 7 years old, he would hold a kickboard against his stomach so no one could see his body. The last thing we want to do is give these kids more reasons to cover up and hate the skin they’re in.

An article by Jezebel on the campaign points out that programs aimed at reducing childhood obesity like this one don’t really work. A study of nearly 30,000 children in 55 of these types of campaigns showed that, on average, children in these programs lost about one pound each over a period of 12 weeks or longer. Is a single pound worth telling kids that having one body type is better than having another?

Now let’s look more closely at this campaign in particular. First, whether intentional or not, the chubby, photoshopped girl has darker skin. This wouldn’t be problem if advertisers didn’t already have a reputation of representing lighter skin as better than darker skin. Secondly, as many parents were quick to note, not everyone can drink milk as an alternative. About 1 in 4 children over age 5 are lactose intolerant—and those tend to be children of color. (About 75 percent of African-American, Jewish, Mexican-American and Native American adults and about  90 percent of Asian-American adults are lactose intolerant. Northern Europeans are the least likely to have the condition.)

And the campaign isn’t clear enough about what it wants overweight kids to do. The problem won’t be solved by simply getting kids to cut soda out of their diets. Jezebel‘s Laura Beck says,

So, say you were an adult or kid who saw that ad and was like ‘Yes, I’d like to stop drinking dry sugar out of a maxi-pad! Show me the skinny light!’ and actually visited First 5’s site, you’d be greeted with little information. Some of their programs haven’t been updated since 2009, and others have ‘Program Information—Coming Soon‘ placeholders.

Seriously, you guys? If you’re gonna go out of your way to pay for ads that belittle and humiliate children, at least pretend to offer a solution.

There are real, non-fat-shaming ways for parents to help kids maintain a healthy weight. Get them involved in the food-making process: Take them to see all the colorful fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market and then get them to help with preparing the food. Show them that the whole family is committed to eating well. Set aside time to play outside with your kids and encourage them to get involved in sports or dance or other physical activities. 

But whatever you do, don’t tell them that being fat makes them wrong and then sit back and hope they hate themselves out of obesity.


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.