It’s A Shame

Helping parents or hurting children...you decide

PHOTO: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Strong4Life campaign

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.”

About The Author

Suelain Moy
Suelain Moy has devoted many consonants and vowels to the study of babies, toddlers, pregnant mamas, teenagers, celebrities, and other wild things. A published author and writer, she has contributed articles and reviews to many national magazines and parenting web sites, including Parenting, Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping, American Baby, Parents.com, Kaboose.com, and BabyZone.com. She is the author of Names to Grow On: Choosing A Name Your Baby Will Love. When she is not writing, she can be found directing lost tourists wandering the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

14 Responses to It’s A Shame

  1. beth says:

    I think these ads are really meant to get parents attention and getting them to take responsibility. I agree that shaming a child is probably not a good approach for all the reasons stated here, but maybe many parents need a strong wake up call.

  2. Sara says:

    I totally agree with the author here- great article. Shame is not a way to get someone to change.

  3. John says:

    I would have to agree with Beth

  4. ganzfanz says:

    “have an opposite and extreme effect. Kids could starve themselves and develop an eating disorder”. Overeating can be an eating disorder. Why is it assumed that there is no excuse for heavy people but the anorexics are sick with a disorder? Both are related to anxiety and loss of control. Anorexia/bulimia sufferers find control by forcing themselves to not eat, if they slip they vomit or exercise. For myself, I have struggled with my weight as an adult. I overeat when feeling blue or even angry. I may eat when dealing with situations that are not improving. After gorging myself I do feel temporarily better, better enough to find a way to deal with whatever issue troubling me. I am sick and tired of the fat police. Anyone look at a Renaissance painting lately and what the ideal body image was then? Would rather be heavy than find solace in a bottle, or drugs, or by physically abusing myself such as with cutting. This society better accept that people come in all shapes and sizes. By the way, My sister has a child with thyroid disorder and seizures. Low metabolism combined with medication packs on the pounds. Does anybody ever stop to think that other ailments may put on weight?

  5. Tamara says:

    As a parent I am horrified by this, and as a fat person I am bought to tears. I have been fat for as long as I can remember, I have felt embarrassment, shame and anger all my life, I cannot bear to look at myself in a mirror. It has gotten to the point where I don’t want to walk outside my door, I know society hates me. It doesn’t matter that I am a productive member of the community (I did teach craft as a volunteer to young children), that I have talents, that I am a loving and caring mother (of thin children) and wife (of a thin Husband). I have no friends and feel as though the world is staring at me whenever I am out. Lately I have been having a small amount of success with weight loss, I exercise daily and eat healthily. But my point here is all the shame in the world can’t make me thin, because if it could I would be a stick figure – as invisible as I wish I really was, all this can serve to do is make others like me, depressed and ashamed.

    • alison says:

      I agree with your criticism of the ad but more than anything else, I’m worried about you personally. I too have fought depression and weight most of my life. I wasn’t able to address the latter until I dealt with the former.

      Get help! You are obviously making sure that you don’t pass on the habits you learned as a child to your children. Now take care of yourself.

    • mama says:

      I don’t judge people by what they look like. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Don’t let people make you feel like that. I don’t know you, but you seem like a nice person. I know alot of people can be judgemental and that is wrong. The important thing is you have kids and husband that love you. That’s the love that counts. I know it’s hard to lose weight, trust me I’ve tried. You are a person not a supermodel. Everyone in this world is different. I wish you good luck and happiness. Keep your head up and smile.

  6. 2girls says:

    This is not a scare tactic, this is an awareness campaign. Too many parents refuse to believe that their child is overweight, or that they need to do anything about it.

  7. Suzanne says:

    What concerns me about this is, the shaming and embarrassing doesn’t work but it does hurt. Obviously the parents know their child is heavy, but do they have the proper skills to help their child eat healthier? My mom, for as long as I can remember, did that to my sister and myself (including my nickname which she still thinks was cute but I despised- baby elephant). Fast forward a few years to my tiny 5 yr old daughter. My mom gave me trouble for not having her on a diet and letting her eat whatever healthy food she wanted. My sister was raising her 6 yearr old like we were raised, and she was overweight but on a diet. Fast forward about another 15 yrs to last year. My daughter puts on my wedding dress from 25yrs earlier and it fits her tiny size 6 body perfectly. I am shocked because I was HUGE as far as I knew (I have unfortunately made my mom’s prophecy come true and am obese). In the days I got married it was a size 10 dress but they have changed sizing. I went back and looked at pictures of myself and I still see myself as huge at my wedding, but I don’t see my daughter as that in the same dress.

  8. Nancy says:

    I think that we all can agree that obesity and poor eating habits are not healthy. But is shaming, belittling and name calling the answer? It doesn’t help that the media (most especially the “super thin” models and Hollywood “stars”) are telling our generation that this is the way you must look to be accepted! I remember watching re-runs of “I Love Lucy”, and Lucy was frantic because she had to fit into a size 12 dress for a part in one of Ricky’s shows. Now a size 12 tells us that we are overweight. Clothing designers also play a part of a young person’s image. It starts at home through healthy eating, excercise and teaching our children that they are loved for who they are, not how they look. Build self-esteem in your kids and yourself.

  9. Lauren says:

    I agree that there are parents who need to take more responsibility for guiding their child’s habits and encouraging healthy choices. Perhaps a good way to do this is through making them realize that their child is the one who suffers the effects of being overweight. However, I think these ads are not the way to do this. They place too much emphasis on appearance, when the real concern should be healthfulness. Too many people lump being heavy and being unhealthy into one, but as medical evidence and common sense will tell you, there are far too many different body types for this to be true. Those who wish to fight obesity, whether in adults or in children, should be encouraging them to be healthy rather than to be skinny.

  10. swhite says:

    I showed this to my 13 year old granddaughter. She was very tall and very chubby until a year ago when she underwent a transformation and now is a very curvy teen. She said the ads would only hurt kids, not their parents.I am appalled. I hope I never see these ads here. They are counter productive. I know too many people whose parents belittled them, believing the child would get angry and ” show them”. It never worked. It only destroyed their relationships.They are now adults are still obese.