I was walking down the street yesterday, when I saw a mother holding the hand of her crying 4-year-old son. It was the meltdown hour, that time of day too close to supper, when a frustrated parent knows she’s not going to make it to her destination any time soon with a hungry, cranky child in tow. To get the boy to stop crying, she pointed to a police car rounding the corner and shrieked, “Look! There’s the police! There’s the police car! You want the police to come and arrest you? Then you’d better stop.” The boy stopped, but I’ll never forget the look of stunned surprise and hurt on his face. I could get arrested for that?
I’m sure the Virginia mother of three daughters felt the same way when police officers showed up at her house on a Saturday night in January to handcuff and arrest her. According to Lenore Skenazy’s “Free-Range Kids” blog, the mother was guilty of tardiness—and bringing her kids to elementary school late seven times.
Shaming tactics aren’t just used with unruly children or tardy Moms. Now they’re the centerpiece of an anti-obesity campaign in Georgia, which features depressed-looking, overweight child actors shot in somber black and white photographs and videos. On one billboard, a sad-eyed girl is accompanied by the tag line: “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not.” In a stark video, a boy asks, “Why am I fat?” while his overweight mother looks down, too embarrassed to reply. The tough-love ads were prescribed as strong medicine by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a state whose childhood obesity rates are the second-highest in the nation, only behind Mississippi’s. While some consider the ads to be a wake-up call to parents, many view Strong4Life’s campaign ads as cruel and belittling, having more in common with a schoolyard bully’s taunts than a hospital.
As one critic put it, “These children know they are fat and that they’re ostracized already.”
My concern is this. Using scare tactics and controlling measures may work in the moment, but they fail spectacularly over the long run. Not every act of disobedience is cause for an intervention or even a police car. Strong-arming tactics don’t really work. Like bullies, these extreme measures teach effectiveness by the use of force, intimidation, blame, and ridicule. Where’s the respectfulness, patience, gentleness, and compassion? And what’s next—shaming the unemployed into getting jobs or depressed people into feeling happy?
For folks who already feel like failures and find comfort in eating and isolating themselves at home, what are the extra helpings of shame going to do? Won’t the increased scrutiny drive overeating or coping behaviors further underground? And by putting all this attention on the physical, on what’s desirable and “normal,” aren’t we negating or downplaying the importance of other traits and qualities like kindness, intelligence, and creativity? In elevating physical thinness, what takes a hit? Think of the difference in attitude between a person who feels comfortable in his or her skin, and one who constantly looks into the mirror and feels despair.
As health advocates have pointed out, chances are good to excellent that the shame and self-loathing that overweight children already feel could cause them to act out and overeat even more or, worse, have an opposite and extreme effect. Kids could starve themselves and develop an eating disorder.
NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association, has already issued a press release calling for the Strong4Life campaign to be dismantled and this Friday, Mom bloggers like Mamavation’s Leah Segedie will take to Twitter to protest and petition the @Strong_4_Life campaign to pull down the ads. Segedie says, “Exposing children to images that are shameful and singles out the overweight kid are damaging. The obesity epidemic is not going to be solved by making the ‘fat’ kid feel more shame about themselves. I know. I was one. I’m concerned these images are going to lead to more public ridicule in schools AND reinforce the shame these children ALREADY feel. Honestly, I think it’s emotionally abusive and I’m floored it’s sanctioned by the State of Georgia. Several blogging communities are uniting to take a stance against these ads. We are using the hashtag #ashamed
to describe how these children are made to feel. You can join us this Friday night from 9-10pm EST to discuss issues arising from these ads.”