I’m pleased to share with you that my colleague Lily O’ Hara has recently co-authored a paper in the journal Media and Culture. The article offers a critique of two major anti-obesity media campaigns that ran in Australia. These campaigns include “Measure Up” and “Swap It, Don’t Stop It”. The Measure Up campaign promotes health management through body weight and waist circumference. It included television advertising, posters, a community guide and a handy 12-week planning kit complete with, you guessed it, a tape measure. Highlighted headlines included “The more you gain, the more you have to lose.” and “How do you measure up?”
Not surprisingly the images that accompanied these campaigns were troubling for many and triggering for some. In the Measure Up campaign, there were video ads that showed a young man looking sadly at a waistline that expanded as he digitally aged. Naturally dire warnings about disease accompanied the video. In still images, both men and women were shown, head bowed, looking dejectedly at a tape measure slung around their waists. These people were shown clad in their underwear (similar to the shorts/sports bra getup in The Biggest Loser) to add to the “public shaming” aspect of the campaign.
Ad copy for the Swap it Don’t Stop It campaign used fear and panic words, highlighting diseases and phrases like ballooning weight. In fact the star of the campaign, Eric, is made of a balloon. In the campaign he says,
over the years my belly has ballooned and ballooned. It’s come time to do something about it — the last thing I want is to end up with some cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That’s why I’ve become a Swapper! What’s a swapper? It’s simple really. It just means swapping some of the things I’m doing now for healthier choices. That way I can lose my belly, without losing all the things I love. It’s easy!
So aside from the panic inducing words and shame producing “balloon image” we have the assertion that swapping just a few foods in a person’s diet will significantly change weight, BMI and waist circumference, despite the fact that there is no concrete evidence that this result would indeed happen.
The paper concludes:
Through the use of textual, discursive and social practices, the social marketing campaigns analysed in this study perpetuate the following concepts: everyone should be alarmed about growing waistlines and ‘ballooning’ rates of ‘obesity’; individuals are to blame for excess body weight, due to ignorance and the practice of ‘unhealthy behaviours’; individuals have a moral, parental, familial and cultural responsibility to monitor their weight and adopt ‘healthy’ eating and physical activity behaviours; such behaviour changes are easy to make and will result in weight loss, which will reduce risk of disease. These paternalistic campaigns evoke feelings of personal and parental guilt and shame, resulting in coercion to ‘take action’. They simultaneously stigmatise fat people yet serve to invisibilise them. Public health agencies must consider the harmful consequences of social marketing campaigns focused on body weight.
So let’s take this apart for a moment, shall we? I’ve spoken before, at great length, about how shame fails to make people healthier, happier or thinner. In fact, I’ve spoken about how shame tends to make us, less happy, less happy and larger than before. I’ve talked about how obesity levels are actually flattened out, and the obesipanic doesn’t really make sense in that context. I’ve talked about how hard our bodies fight to maintain our weight and that in most cases, a few simple changes will not result in significant (if any) weight loss. So everything about these campaigns are doomed. They are much more likely to cause harm than to help. But let’s look at one other aspect of this. The taxpayers of Australia paid for these things. They are government sponsored.
We’ve all heard the argument that fat people can be fat as long as they don’t cost you tax dollars.
And there are many reasons why this is a ridiculous argument. But one eloquent comeback I see after reading this paper is this:
Your fat hatred is costing me far more tax dollars than any money you are supposedly losing caring for people of size.
We have ample evidence that these campaigns do no good. We have ample evidence that these campaigns are actively causing harm to the people targeted by them. And to me, the worst part is we are making people pay for the very media that is stigmatizing, brutalizing and depressing them.
The only thing ballooning here, is my rage over this particular state of affairs.
Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)