Be Careful with Labels in the Fight against Child Obesity

A couple of months ago, Disney quietly launched a new attraction at Epcot’s Innoventions called “Habit Heroes.” The attraction was intended to be an interactive exhibit to combat childhood obesity and encourage healthy habits.

The opening was a soft launch to get feedback before formally launching in early March, and they received quite a bit of criticism. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) felt the attraction stigmatized being overweight because all the villains in the attraction were portly. It criticized the attraction for its negativity and even accused Disney of “taking the side of the bullies.” I read one account by a Canadian blogger who wrote, ”

“So thanks for being so helpful Disney – I mean if your kid’s not overweight or obese, here’s to Disney reinforcing society’s most hateful negative obesity stereotyping, and if they are overweight or obese – what kid doesn’t want to be made to feel like a personal failure while on a Disney family vacation?”

Disney has since closed the exhibit for re-tooling.

I have not seen the exhibit so I can’t speak to its appropriateness. I’m also not familiar with the NAAFA, so I looked at their website. The purpose of the organization is to protect the rights and improve the quality of life for fat people. “NAAFA works to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through advocacy, public education, and support.” I’m not sure I can support an organization for fat acceptance, but they do make a valid point in their criticism of how the attraction can make overweight children feel.

As the nation has tried to tackle childhood obesity, it has created a stigma against being overweight. If you are fat, you are bad. And why not? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the medical cost of obesity in the U.S. totaled $147 billion in 2008.

The problem is that obesity is not a health issue we can fix with a simple solution. A few years ago, we targeted smokers as the health issue to fix. Health campaigns around the country encouraged smokers to stop cold turkey, and that action removed the negative label. That same standard doesn’t apply to people who are overweight. First of all, we can ask them to stop eating. Food is a necessity. Second, changing your diet does not automatically fix the problem. Weight loss takes time and is often impacted by other social and environmental factors. We eat for more than just sustenance. After all, we have all heard terms like  “comfort food” and “stress eating.” So to address obesity, we need to look at the social and environmental factors impacting weight gain — the “why” people eat.

A few days ago, the New York Times published an op-ed by Frank Bruni where he explored our country’s expanding waistline, the reasons behind it and the toll it takes. He sums up the point well with the following:

“If we’re going to wage a successful war against unhealthy weight gain and obesity, we need to understand all of that. We need to stop vilifying obese people, who aren’t likely to be helped by it.”

This is even more important when we talk about kids. When we target overweight kids, we risk labeling them during a critical period in their development. Studies have shown there is a developmental association between obesity and rates of self-esteem in children and adolescents. Overweight children are at greater risk of lower self-esteem. This can result in social isolation, bullying and other issues.

Bottom line, we have to tackle childhood obesity. It’s critical for the future health of our country. But we have to be careful about labeling overweight kids as bad or deficient in the process. Positive social support has to be part of the equation. So how do we do it?


2 thoughts on “Be Careful with Labels in the Fight against Child Obesity

  1. I agree, Patty, that we need to tackle childhood obesity and it’s a lot more complicated than just diet. We also need to reorient the conversation to being healthy and active, and eating healthily for mental and physical energy, and not focus so much on actual weight. Some people will naturally weigh more than others but can still be healthy, and the media’s and culture’s obsession with one particular body type as the ideal is my more pressing concern.

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