“Shame and Blame: Facing the Unintended Consequences of Health Messaging” on Huffpost

Today my op-ed on shame and blame in health campaigns was published on the Huffington Post. Check it out!

Shame and Blame: Facing the Unintended Consequences of Health Messaging

A solemn black and white poster shows a picture of an obese girl with copy that reads: “Warning: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Another poster displays a woman’s naked legs with her panties around her ankles and the word: “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.” The first is part of the Georgia “Strong 4 Life” campaign to prevent childhood obesity; the other is part of the Pennsylvania “Control Tonight” campaign to reduce excessive alcohol consumption. Though the campaigns are unrelated, they have one thing in common: disregard for the effects of shame and blame — the frequent unintended consequences of health campaigns.

The promotion of health and social welfare is one of those noble causes that attracts people who want to “do good.” Physicians are taught to “First, do no harm,” but health communication professionals take for granted that their work is “doing good” without considering that it might cause unintentional harm. For example, stigmatizing sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention messages may make people with STIs too embarrassed to seek treatment or too ashamed to tell their sexual partners. Not only can health promotion messages lead to such negative health outcomes, they can also promote destructive social values, like fat stigma and rape culture.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Quick hit: Shaming fat kids doesn’t solve anything

Strong 4 Life campaign

According to the Georgia Strong 4 Life childhood obesity campaign website, “Ignoring this problem is what got us here.”

It’s true that childhood obesity is a big problem, but you know what DIDN’T cause the childhood obesity epidemic?

Ignoring the problem.

You know what did?

  • Income disparity
  • Food deserts
  • Fast food advertising
  • The whole fast food industry
  • Corn subsidies
  • Policies like the one declaring that pizza counts as a vegetable in school lunches
  • Lack of safe outdoor play space for inner city kids
  • Video games
  • Lack of funding for physical education
  • Poverty

You know what this ad does?

  • Help families alleviate/prevent childhood obesity
  • Blame this kid for being a fatty fat.

Know what blaming kids for being fat does?

  • Makes them lose weight
  • Encourages a culture of fat stigma and fat shaming that fuels bullying
  • Increases negative psychological, emotional, and health outcomes among overweight and obese children, such as low self-esteem, body image disturbance, eating disorders, and even suicide.

Way to go, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Too big for a stroller?

Today I discovered Walk, a new Tumblr site sharing photos of kids in strollers who are too old to be using strollers. The sentiment behind the site seems to be that kids who are old enough to walk should walk. The friend who posted it on Facebook wrote “Seriously, if your kid can walk without falling, your kid should walk without falling.” I can see how some might be annoyed by the sight of 7-11 year old squeezed into a stroller, but Walk is perhaps saying more than was intended.

As I looked through the photos, I couldn’t help but notice that a fair few of the kids in strollers were overweight. Considering that childhood obesity is a growing problem in the U.S., this may not be coincidence.  According to the CDC, rates of childhood obesity have more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. Childhood obesity is a serious problem because it sets kids up for a lifetime of chronic illness and health issues. It also makes kids more susceptible to bullying and fat-shaming from their peers and society at large. While the causes of childhood obesity are multifaceted and complex, one is undoubtedly a lack of physical activity.

I strongly believe that when it comes to obesity, it is unfair to put all the blame on the individual. Our society promotes and condones unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles in a number of ways: the fast food industry, an economy based on office jobs, car-based societies, corn subsidies, food deserts, etc. For those who are low-income, a healthy lifestyle is almost impossible considering the lack of access to safe public recreation spaces, lack of leisure time, and high costs of fresh, healthy foods.

Perhaps another way that our culture unknowingly reinforces unhealthy behaviors is through “stroller culture.” Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently bad about strollers (like Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s character in Away We Go), but that perhaps we use them too often and for too long. Looking at some of the images on Walk, it seems that might be the case. What are we teaching our school-aged children when we don’t expect them to walk alongside us? If anything, we’re reinforcing the idea that walking from the parking lot to the store is an imposition, or that physical activity is separate from the experience of living every day – something we only experience at the gym or playing sports.

My mother came out to Boston to visit on Mother’s Day. We were heading from my apartment in “Camberville” into the city, and I suggested that we could avoid the 18 minute walk to the T stop by taking a bus. She gave me a lecture on how walking was part of the urban experience and part of a healthy lifestyle.  At age 25, is my mom still pushing me out of the stroller?

I’m wary that Tumblr sites like this can often become places for fat-shaming (like People of Walmart) and I would hate for this to happen with Walk. Still, it is a reminder that walking is part of a healthy lifestyle for kids as well as adults.