Ashamed - Mixed feelings about Georgia's campaign against childhood obesity

So, today I did something new. I went to the gym, I met with the very nice trainer, and I said, “I am the most out of shape I’ve ever been, and I hate it, and I would like to change that.” Despite my inability to operate a machine as simple as the Wallet Locker outside the exercise room, she kindly gave me a basic orientation on four of the strength training machines and got me signed up for a workout challenge.

The funnest time I went to New Orleans

The last time I made significant progress on the perpetual Fitness Journey was before my now three-year-old was born, and then – well, two moves in three years, started homeschooling, funds are low, it’s really freaking hot in Texas most of the time, etc., etc., suffice it to say there has been no progress. I could elaborate but I suppose I’m supposed to frame the narrative in terms of No More Excuses. Right?

Something I noticed was that nobody else seemed super-aware of my being there, which was a surprise, as I generally assume that my presence among The Fit will trigger a wave of knowing glances and whispered comments. It was like…I was at a place where people are supposed to, I don’t know, want to improve themselves. (The nice thing about the YMCA is that it welcomes folks from everywhere along the fitness spectrum.)

The first time I went to New Orleans

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t self-conscious about my weight, even as a perfectly healthy child. I remember being very upset the first time I went to buy jeans in the juniors department and I needed a regular instead of a slim. The version of me who travels back through time bops that person over the head and says “you have curves. They are supposed to be there.” Oh, well.

The thing that really stands out to me about these feelings is that shame about my body leads me not to “time to set some manageable goals for improving my health, with the help of my physician and a supportive group of friends.” No, it’s more like: “Forget it. It’s all pointless, anyway.” I hate that I have now moved to two different places and I have to meet all new people in this current version of my body. I shake hands with my new friend and think, “I hope this person realizes I don’t always look like this.”

So, here’s what I don’t understand about the anti-obesity campaign from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“We needed something that was more arresting and in your face than some of the flowery campaigns out there,” said Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta…

…Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta chose the straightforward approach after its survey of two towns in Georgia found that 50 percent of parents did not know childhood obesity was a problem and 75 percent of parents with obese children did not think their child was overweight.

“If we do not wake up, this will be disastrous for our state,” said Matzigkeit.

The goal is certainly laudable and the accompanying website is user-friendly and targeted towards educating parents about the importance of helping their children get lots of physical activity, eat right, avoid sedentary lifestyles, all that good stuff.

But the posters – to me, imagining what it would feel like to see that in my pediatrician’s office, ten years old and I’m already self-conscious about my body – they feel like a slap in the face. Some of the taglines seem like they should be followed with a “just sayin’!” and a celebratory high-five. “Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line.” Oh, snap!

What about the girls who are perfectly happy with their bodies just the way they are – if such creatures exist? “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Get it? Ah. I hadn’t realized I really did need to feel ashamed of my body. I thought I was supposed to not let the unkind remarks of other kids get to me.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and if they’ll be able to monitor the success of this campaign. It just seems like the risk of making children feel more ashamed of their bodies outweighs (er…pun intended) the potential rewards in public health. I feel like the billboards, etc., are a tacit acknowledgement that yeah, it’s kind of okay to judge kids who are obese – I mean, we’re really judging the parents, though – and that’s definitely okay. “Don’t feel depressed, kids, but understand that everyone in the state is talking about your weight! Surely you’re not having dessert?”

I’ll freely admit that I’m terrified of how to handle this with my own daughter, who is lovely just as she is, happens to be slender as a reed, and already worries that she’s too fat. I try not to discuss my own weight concerns at all, and to talk about how it’s good for Mommy to take care of herself and exercise without saying “Mommy despairs of her very existence when she contemplates measuring her hips.” I try to chill out about her sweet tooth, provide healthy options, all that good stuff. My sons – well, the three-year-old is not concerned in the least that his nightly raids of pistachios from the pantry are going to harm his waistline, and the ten-year-old is more focused on how our future would pan out if he were president of a world populated by robots.

Plus, one huge benefit of homeschooling is that they generally spend hours outside riding bikes, climbing trees, doing yard work for the neighbors but rarely for their own yard (what’s with that?). I try not to make my children’s eating habits a HUGE ISSUE THAT WE NEED TO MONITOR.  So I guess I’m glad we don’t live in a WORLD OF BILLBOARDS ABOUT HOW BEING FAT SUCKS WHEN YOU’RE A KID. JUST SAYIN’.

Kate Wicker – I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on all of this. (Review of Weightless is coming soon – no, really – I’m kind of behind on blogging. Because, you know, I go to the gym now.)

Get content via email

Follow along in a feed reader, or get new posts right in your Inbox.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


  1. Bearing says

    I completely, completely understand about the “do I really belong here?” phenomenon. That is one reason why I love the YMCA — it tends to be full of all kinds of people. Organizations often pay lip service to the importance of diversity, but boy howdy does it really help in a fitness center for it to be obviously welcoming of all kinds of bodies — it is impossible, eventually, not to realize that you belong there as much as anyone else.

    Still, I had a major case of impostor syndrome when I started. By the way, I got on this morning intending to make a post marking my four year anniversary since I began my resolution to get to the gym twice a week. It was nice to be greeted with your post first thing.

    Re: the posters, I think they are awful. If the statistics about awareness among parents are as you report, it does not seem unreasonable to have an ad campaign targeted at *parents*, even a startling one — but this does not look to me like it is targeted at adults. Fat kids know they are fat, and an appropriate campaign for kids would be confidence-building, not crushing. Those images would stick,

  2. says

    Those ads are ludicrous. Of course overweight children know they are “Big”. And I don’t believe the “study” is accurate. Maybe the parents responded the way they did because they didn’t want to admit the truth. “Yes, I know about childhood obesity, and yes, I know my children are obese. They learned it at home, from me.”

    And, why don’t they take the time to look at what is being served to these children in their school cafeterias. Oh gosh, don’t get me started…

    As far as your self-esteem and self-image, as a woman who worked as a fitness trainer and now as a dietitian, I can tell you there are plenty of gorgeous, skinny girls and women walking around with very poor self-images and loathing their own bodies. I have seen it reapeatedly. It is such a waste of energy and so, so sad. And I see it happening to younger and younger girls. (A neighborhood girl once proudly announced she had “lost five pounds!” She is nine).

    Sorry for the long post, but such a hot topic to me. Thank you so much for your honesty and sharing!

    • says

      Hi, Michelle! Thanks for stopping by! Yes, that was my first thought with regard to the parents’ responses – I wondered how many parents preferred to say they didn’t know it was a problem.

  3. says

    i agree with Bearing–it was fun to wake up to your post today.

    My husband got me a membership to the YMCA for Christmas. it’s been a long time since I’ve joined a gym, and my last one was not a Y. TVs were everywhere and constantly tuned to Tia Tequila, and I really hated going, because I’ve never been a little girl, in a sea of little girls (who happen to be grown-ups). The ad campaign reiterates the demon voice inside every female’s head, which cannot possibly be beneficial.

    But the Y has a great atmosphere, I think–definitely more wholesome, which includes the TV programming, the magazines on the rack, and the way people are dressed on the machines, and the “kind” of people on the machines if that’s possible, in that, at least during the hours when I’ve gone, it’s been all kinds of people, and not just work-out bunnies and meatheads. All of which is to say, I like the Y.

    By far, the most informative and useful information I ever received about weight loss or obesity, is knowing what a portion size actually looks like. How much food do I really need to eat, or to send in my children’s lunch boxes? They complain that they don’t get enough, when I send a drink, a sandwich, a cheese stick, and a fruit. I know it’s plenty of food for children of their size and age, who are stationary for seven hours a day. Then I ate lunch with them at school one day, and saw what other kids were getting in their lunch boxes and in the school lunch: it was the whole damn pantry. I couldn’t afford to send that much food, even if I thought it was a good idea.

    That doesn’t even touch on the birthday treats, reward snacks, and class parties. PLUS, the cafeteria sells (and makes all profit on the sale of) leftovers, and fruit snacks if students are still hungry. I can tell my kids that they’re getting a reasonable amount of food, but the message is not reinforced at their school (which I find ironic). They all gain weight during the school year.

    The ad is not targeted to the right people. It needs to address educators and care providers, who for a vast majority of children, oversee one to two meals a day, plus an after-school snack.

    (Funnest time I had in New Orleans too, btw.)

  4. says

    This campaign disgusts me. Okay, I realize my reaction is strong, but I know from being a chubby, LITTLE girl that seeing one of those posters would have cracked my eggshell ego. Shame is not the way to help people choose a more healthful lifestyle. In fact, that sweet girl might already be lugging around a lot more shame than body fat. One of the reasons people eat too much is because there’s a part of them that wants to hide away. “Look at me! I’m fat! Don’t get too close to me.” As people above stated, a child doesn’t choose to be fat. Maybe there’s a small percentage of adult hedonists who decide to embrace total gluttony and are saying, “To heck with my body!” But most people want to free themselves from being overweight; they just don’t know how, or they don’t realize how long it takes to do it the right way.

    In my own experience as being a child who was teased for her weight, I started to eat more because I felt like I could never live up to the ideal standard of beauty that was out there. I had a beautiful, thin mom. I’d never be anything like her, so why even try? I didn’t like my body, but I didn’t like myself more. Poor self-image and low self-esteem feed a child’s desire to eat more. So how can shaming them possibly help them to escape the despair they’re already feeling? A 6-year-old hopefully can’t turn to drugs or alcohol to help take away her pain and take her away from herself, but she can eat more cake.

    I don’t write about this on my personal blog because my parents don’t need to feel like they caused something that I chose to do (eat too much and then whittle away from an eating disorder), but I do remember that there were tons of unhealthy snacks in our pantry. My mom was one of those people who would eat a banana and a Hershey Bar for lunch. When I came home from school, she’d offer me a Little Debbie. This certainly contributed to my chubbiness. Yet, I remember from a very young age associated shame with how much I ate. I was once at a friend’s house and felt like I was eating too many Doritos. My friend was rail-thin, and I was not. I felt so yucky in her presence. You’d think I’d stop eating those chips. Instead, I started eating more because I just felt so pathetic.

    I’m not suggesting every overweight kid has deeper issues, but I’d argue that many do, especially once they do start to fall in that obese category through no fault of their own and start to get teased. But even if a child is simply eating too much, then we need to, like others have said, target the parents and educators. While I am careful to not label food as bad in my house, I also tell my kids that we can’t eat too much sugar not because it will make us fat but because it’s just not the best fuel for our bodies. We need to empower parents to serve real food rather than processed garbage. Even innocuous crackers and bread now have corn syrup in them. So many parents don’t even realize they’re giving their kids junk devoid of any nutritional value to eat.

    We all have our own set point weights and natural designs, but young children are more mindful eaters. We screw them up by forcing them to eat by the clock instead of by their stomachs or by telling them to clean their plate or filling our 7-month-old babies with sugary juice we think is healthy.

    I’m so glad you brought this to our attention, Dorian. I think I’ll end up blogging about it further when I have a chance. I also wanted to post about a new book I saw called Maggie Goes on a Diet. Would you believe the premise is that an unpopular, fat girl decides to start exercising and go on a diet and when she is successful at her efforts and loses weight, she instantly has more friends and becomes more likable? Again, this book is going at this sensitive topic the wrong way. First off, childhood obesity is a big problem that needs to be addressed, but it’s not just a girl’s problem. Don’t young girls already have enough pressure piled on them that their looks is what makes them popular, powerful even, or the opposite – ignored and worthless? Why couldn’t the main character be a boy? Secondly, I know what it’s like to instantly transform. Although my eating habits could have been better as a young child, I also believe I naturally packed on some pounds when I started to prepare for puberty. When I finally blossomed at 15, I naturally thinned out without any dieting (although I had started running). I returned to school and the same boys who had oinked at me were now asking me out on dates. Nothing other than my external shell had changed.. Case in point: One “nice” guy told me I was a nerd trapped in a hot body. But this newfound popularity rooted in my physical appearance sent a very clear message to me: You are more lovable if you’re thinner. You are better if there is less of you. Not surprisingly, I turned to the scale for affirmation. How I looked was my sole barometer for my worth.

    I’m all for teaching young children to make healthy choices because their bodies are so important – gifts on loan from God. We need to encourage healthy eating and not throw cupcake parties for every stinkin’ holiday. But we don’t need to shame our children, especially our little women who are already at tremendous risk of sacrificing their true selves in a world where the dignity of women is constantly under attack.

    I’ll get off my soapbox (for now).

  5. anon says

    This is a complex issue and while I don’t think the Georgia campaign is a smart one, it’s hard to know how to tackle it. I thought I was being careful when raising my girls; emphasis on healthy, tried to make no negative comments, etc. Also their girl scout troops and their schools presented anti-eating disorder programs regularly. One of my daughters ended up with an eating disorder that I never saw coming. I think there are a variety of problems that can result in disordered eating or overeating, and addressing the food is just part of the story.

  6. says

    I think their intentions are good but their method is horrible. I’ve struggled with my weight since I was 5 or so. These posters are the equivalent of putting up posters of overweight women and saying “Its hard to be a beautiful woman when you’re not”. Now, how many women would react positively to such a poster? More importantly, would such a poster make you want to join a gym or grab some ice cream?

    Making people feel bad about themselves is negative reinforcement and it is not the best way to encourage them to change. You don’t win someone over by insulting them. Instead, show them how beautiful they are regardless of how they look and the odds are better that they will find themselves forgetting to eat more than they need.

  7. Marianne says

    I understand about the shame, but it’s a health issue that is costing tons of money that could be used elsewhere and is destroying lives. Most overweight people are already ashamed, but all the supportive talk and the taboo nature of the subject is not helping. People, myself included, need to do better for themselves and their kids, and a little outright disapproval might push some to try harder.

    • says

      Marianne, I agree that we shouldn’t sugarcoat this serious problem but if we use shame at all, it needs to be directed at the adults, not the children. Some of the posters do a better job of that, but the one of the little girl shown in Dorian’s post is singling out and stigmatizing a child who needs to be told she’s worth making healthy changes.

      Pediatricians need to have heart-to-hearts with parents about the dangers of obesity, but what the children need – more than a fat stigma – is to know that they are good (even if they don’t always eat the best food or eat too much food) and don’t deserve to be teased. They don’t deserve to be out of breath either or insulin-resistant. They need to be loved into loving themselves. This might sound overly soft and mushy, but I speak from experience. Each new rejection as a child – and seeing one of those posters would have felt an awful lot like rejection – sent me back to the pantry.

      Fine, shame the adults. Children are not naturally fat; the adults in their lives help to make them that way. But spare the children themselves.

  8. says

    I think of the actual kids photographed in these ads. Good grief! A black and white photo, no smile, unflattering clothes — who let their daughter pose for this campaign? Has the child seen the billboard?

    Georgia has a graphic anti-meth campaign. The billboards will cause you to gasp (and your children to ask “Mom, what is virginity and why would you lose it in a yucky bathroom?”).

    I have a child with a weight issue. Shame is not the answer. I’m not sure I have the answer, but shame isn’t it.

    • says

      Kelly, I agree. I thought about those poor kids, too.

      Also, I realize my above comment may have come off as too harsh when I mentioned shaming the parents. I personally don’t think shame is the answer either – for adults or for the kids themselves – but we certainly need to protect our children first and foremost. If we’re going to resort to the blame game, then it makes more sense to blame the grownups. However, my own parents don’t need guilt. They were loving parents doing the best they could (and trying to heal a sibling with a drug addiction), and I certainly don’t blame them for my body image problems.

      I’ve often wondered why I was the only chunky one growing up. We didn’t always have the best choices of food around, but my brothers ate worse than I did and they didn’t struggle with their weight as children. My mom was thin, too, so there was something besides the food that was around me that caused me to pack on the pounds. I certainly didn’t want to be that way. I also have never liked TV or video games, so I wasn’t overly sedentary as a child. I rode horses and loved to traipse through the woods. Yet, I do remember eating in secret sometimes (there’s that shame again).

      I don’t know the answer either, but I do know that these children need love and support above all. I’ve come to a healthy place after being a chunky kid and then later suffering from a clinical eating disorder and being far too thin partly because of the love and support of my family. But, ultimately, my healing came from the believe that I had more to offer the world than skin and that I owed it not only to myself but to the God who lovingly created me, to take care of myself by not eating too much or too little and by moving this temple of mine.

      • says

        Sorry if I sounded flippant. I actually think shaming the parents is okay to some degree! When parents sued McDonald because their kids were obese, well, that was the last word in ridiculous. Kids don’t buy the food, at least not young kids.

        That being said . . . I have two rail thin kids, an average sized daughter, and a son who struggles with extra weight. It’s hard to fatten two up while helping another one to lose. One of mine drinks ensure with protein, and the other should stick to skim milk. tough to have several varieties around the house; tough to keep it from making it too big of an issue.

    • says

      Kelly, somewhere I read some interviews with at least one of the kids and they expressed their pride in participating in the campaign and making some changes for the better in their own lives.

      A couple of the television ads are very upsetting – but in a good way, I think – there’s one with a girl who talks about being diagnosed with hypertension, and how she’s very scared about what that means. In the case of that and a couple of the other ads, I think the shock effect works. But I still feel that the shame aspect of the campaign is going to work against their stated goals.

  9. says

    I also just found a campaign video of stop obesity with parents insinuated ways. a son innocently asked her mother, mother why am I fat? the campaign in Georgia. it is time to build awareness of the psychological effects, and may it be one way. whether we must destroy food factories? whether we should stop television shows and delicious food advertisements? oh no. if every girl can feel sexy like Katy Perry felt herself sexy and feminim, and if each boy is able to feel sexy like David Beckham feels himself sexy and masculine, I think that’s one way of awareness of good (smile)