Georgia is running a controversial ad campaign about childhood obesity. It features black and white photos of fat, unhappy looking kids with messages about the dangers of being seriously overweight.
Some people object to the campaign, saying it stigmatizes obesity and poses risks to the psyches of overweight children. Others contend that the ads amount to a form of bullying, and play into stereotypes about size and weight.
Isn’t this typical? We often recognize that a condition that is produced by some form of unrestrained, voluntary behavior — in this case, obesity caused by overeating and lack of exercise — has severe health consequences and vow to do something about it. But every effort to address the problem brings arguments by the self-esteem police at advocacy organizations. And, ultimately, we end up paralyzed and incapable of taking effective measures to deal with the problem and truly help the people who need the help.
I think the notion that the Georgia ad campaign is harming the psyches of overweight kids, who otherwise are perfectly comfortable about their weight, is ludicrous. Speaking as someone who was a fat kid — and who will always need to watch it — I am confident that most overweight kids are acutely aware of their weight and are embarrassed by it, ad campaign or not.
I don’t know whether these ads are a good use of public funds — but if they are going to work, they need to be hard-hitting. We can’t effectively address childhood obesity through school lunch programs or food labeling campaigns; we need to reach the kids and their parents. If tough ads can shame parents into better regulating their obese kid’s diet and exercise, or motivate the kids to quit overeating and get some exercise, that would be a good thing. And if we can avoid paying for countless future bariatric surgeries and treatments for weight-related diabetes, or for intrusive government programs that check what’s in school lunch bags, through a few hits at the self-esteem of heavy kids, I think that’s a price worth paying.
Shame and embarrassment can be powerful motivational tools. Why not use them?