Cheap Talk —
At first, we attempted to fight fire with fire by shaming Strong4Life right back by flooding the offices of those responsible with calls and emails. Then, we changed tactics and began asking public health organizations to join us and pressuring sponsors to confront Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta about the fat-shaming billboards throughout the state of Georgia (for a brief primer of our fight, check this out).
At the same time, Marilyn Wann launched her powerful and moving STANDards photo series which featured contributions from people of all shapes and sizes. And Ragen Chastain launched her Big Fat Moneybomb when we all came together and donated $21,000 in advertising funds for Ragen’s organization, the Support All Kids billboard campaign. On May 6, 2012, 6 billboards and 10 bus signs went up around Atlanta as the Strong4Life billboards were coming down.
And with the help of our readers, our letter-writing campaign inspired this unprecedented response to Strong4Life from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development sent powerful message that shame and stigma is never an acceptable way to address anyone’s health. Especially when you’re talking about a child’s health.
That’s why when I think of Weight Stigma Awareness Week, I see Strong4Life as its posterchild, so to speak.
So, the other day I stumbled across Strong4Life’s Facebook page once again and was kind of surprised to see this post:
Talk about your “Come to Jesus” moment.
S4L speakin’ HAES?
So, I scroll a little further.
Sadly, it was not to be.
Just four days earlier, Strong4Life had been beating the panic gong.
Aaaaaaaaah, now that sounds like the Strong4Life I know and loathe.
Same thing two days before that.
Something tells me Janice is often surprised by things she reads on the internet.
But seriously, Strong4Life, how can these two beliefs coexist?
The Talk is for ALL families, regardless of weight. We need to shift the conversation from weight to healthy habits… parents have more anxiety about talking to their kids about weight than sex or drugs.
How can “The Talk” be for all families regardless of weight and simultaneously be about weight, which is supposedly harder for parents than sex or drugs?
Mixed messages much?
You know what really makes The Talk easy? Simply talking about healthy behaviors. That’s what we do with both of our girls, one thin, one chunky. And they both eat, and enjoy, a diverse and healthy diet because we’re not making a huge effing deal of every bite they take. They’re also both really active and love to play because that’s what kids love to do, not because we have them run laps around the playground (which I’ve seen and it made me cringe… “here kid, I’ll bring you to a playground and make you run around it”).
If Strong4Life is serious and The Talk is not about weight, then don’t make this about childhood obesity and how hard it is to talk to your kid about how fat he or she is.
So, I decided to see what else this campaign for ALL families, not just the fatties, was all about.
I invite you to look it up, but I’m not going to link to them because Strong4LIfe still gets it wrong.
This is their latest rebranding since the billboard fiasco. The last one I commented on was change immediately after the billboards, when Strong4Life gave us the fatty who became unstuck in time. This one seems to be more directed at parents, which is a relief. And while the general health message is okay, the delivery remains fundamentally wrong.
For example, on Strong4Life’s website, under the section titled “The Talk,” subsection “Time for the Talk,” they give four examples of how to improve your health: be active for 60 minutes, limit screen time to one hour, make half your plate veggies and fruits, and drink more water and limit sugary drinks.
Generally speaking, these aren’t terrible recommendations. The examples listed are widely accepted as healthy behaviors to adopt*, and what Strong4Life said on September 10th is right: making healthy changes like the ones suggested is good for ALL families, not just the fat ones. It’s a great message in and of itself, and I hope that Strong4Life continues in that direction.
But from what I’ve seen of their website, Strong4Life hasn’t strayed far from its old, fat-shaming ways.
Bear in mind, it’s nothing like the original billboard campaign, but it’s there, just under the surface, festering. All you have to do is go to their site and you’re greeted with this (if the following is not animated, click the image).
To their credit, three (possibly four) of the kids are thin. So, it’s nominally about ALL families, but three of the six messages are about weight, rather than some general health message for all people. And one of those images in particular seems to take a swipe at Health at Every Size. Can you guess which one?
I wanted to see more of where this was going, so I click.
So, this woman who is looking in the mirror and striking a self-conscious pose (either that or she’s pregnant), is a proponent of HAES? Yeah, clearly.
And since this is a slideshow of “thoughts that hold us back,” we are clearly meant to conclude that you can’t be healthy without being skinny, especially this sad sack sucking it in.
So, I click START HERE and it brings me to another page:
How fucking condescending. Rather than taking the time to address the arguments presented in the research, Strong4Life simply dismisses HAES as the justification for self-absorbed and deluded fatties.
And am I the only one having a hard time comprehending how exactly one would “work on health with beauty”? Wear high heels on the elliptical? Ride a stationary bike while getting a perm?
It seems that Strong4Life is confusing Health at Every Size with Fatshion. Though there is obvious overlap, the underlying principles of HAES have nothing to do with looks. They’re based on the metabolic indicators that tell us more about health than any mirror, or scale, can. The woman pictured above cannot look in the mirror and know her blood pressure, her cholesterol levels or her blood sugar levels. All she knows is what her body looks like, and that’s a poor measure of health.
My question for Strong4Life would be, what if that woman follows the prescription you recommend and the impact is negligible? What if a fatty exercises and eats a diverse and healthy diet, and she still looks fat?
You either have to accept that a healthy diet and exercise does not universally result in skinny bodies or accuse that woman of lying (aka noncompliance). The fact is, I’ve seen women who look like the model above and who have kicked some serious ass at the gym. They have already discovered how to to work on health with beauty, and don’t need your patronizing and disingenuous attempts at flattery.
As a movement, HAES completely agrees that mirrors don’t reflect health, but the way Strong4Life has twisted this basic truth is pretty despicable. If Dr. Stephanie Walsh doesn’t understand how the woman above could be perfectly healthy, then I would like to invite her to keep up with the latest and greatest research.
For example, if she has seen Weight of the Nation (which I briefly analyze here with the promise to return to address all four parts), then she’s either ignoring one of the most comprehensive sections of that film or she’s in denial. In that segment, Dr. Samuel Klein from Washington University in St. Louis (woo!) reviews his extensive research on how losing just 7% of your body weight is enough to get the lifelong benefits we are told can only happen if a fat person becomes a thin person.
For the model above, assuming she weights between 200 and 300 pounds, a 7% decrease would be between 14 and 21 pounds. Hell, for all we know, the woman in the picture above has already lost 7% of her body weight and is in the best shape of her life. But without following her to the doctor’s office and reading her medical records directly, we can’t know.
But, remember, Strong4Life is for ALL families, not just the fat ones… that is, until you click on the tab titled “About the Movement,” which takes you to the following page (click the image to embiggen):
Gee whiz, it sure seems like this “movement” is almost entirely about how fat kids are and how we have to make the fat kids not so fat.
This graphic includes some pretty ridiculous predictions (like how this is the first generation that won’t outlive its parents… despite obesity rates having peaked in 1999 for children, we have yet to see evidence of a decline in life expectancy… it fact it is still continuing its slow, but steady, rise), but one of the statistics listed is some hard core bullshit.
75% of George parents still don’t recognize the problem.
Anyone who was around from the beginning remembers that a week into our campaign I pointed out that this claim was completely unsubstantiated AND that Strong4Life used this 75% statistic in three completely different ways. Despite promises that they would send me the research underlying this claim, they never did. Instead, toward the end of the billboards, they sent out a new statistic that we swiftly debunked. Once again, they’ve reverted to this 75% claim without any evidence. And once again, Strong4Life has decided that a flashy, eye-catching infographic is more important than a realistic analysis of the facts.
So, its imagery is about fat people and its infographics are about fat people, but as we click through the explanation of The Talk, the mixed messages on weight continue. My comments are in green.
You know why you need to have “The Talk”. Your kid’s a lardass. If you’re still feeling nervous about talking to your child about his or her weight and health, take a deep breath and relax. Don’t worry, fatties don’t have feelings.
When talking to your kids about sex or drugs, it can be awkward because you have to explain things in a very direct manner. Sex and drugs are bad mmmkay? Our version of The Talk is not nearly as scary because you won’t even have to mention the word “weight,” or anything that might make you or your child cringe. Instead, just have your child read The Gulps and write in your child’s name over the names of all the fat kids.
Instead, we suggest framing the discussion around your family’s need to get healthy. And by healthy, we mean skinny. It’s a need all of us have. To be skinny. We will encourage you to talk about building healthy habits, family participation, fun activities, simple goals, and change. Change that will make you skinny!
This is not a discussion about anyone’s weight—it’s a discussion about making good choices for our bodies. But remember, if you think you can be healthy without being skinny, then you’re a moron.
Avoid words like blame, fault, judgment, fat, weight, diet and bad parenting. Avoid these words, but feel free to blame, fault and judge fat kids and bad parents by visiting our website! Use words like team, compromise, love, respect and consistency. Ah, teamwork… as in, “This team would work so much better if you weren’t so fat, fatty!”
Their actual words seem pretty tame, right? My sarcastic response seems unnecessary. I mean, they say it’s not about weight; they say not to use words about weight; they say it’s about health, not body size.
So, what’s your problem, sarcastic blogger guy?
My problem is that Strong4Life’s words and their actual message to parents is completely disconnected.
As parents, we’re told to not make The Talk about weight and that it’s about health. But on their website, weight plays a prominent role. And later, I even discovered, that the videos they’ve released to support this campaign are also weight-centric.
The first video (and if you visit, be sure to give it a thumbs down) features two moms shopping for clothes. One mom asks the other, “So, you two have that talk yet?” The other mom says, “What talk?” then “Oh… I don’t even know where to start.”
The narrator interrupts and says, “Today, parents say the most difficult conversation with their kids is not about sex or drugs. It’s about weight.”
The negligent mother then says, “You know my own daughter won’t shop with me any more. She says, ‘Oh mom, I don’t look good in anything.'”
The other mother responds, “You gotta tell her, it’s not about how she looks, it’s about —” and they both say together “how she feels.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” negligent mother agrees. “But I would almost rather talk about sex.”
Okay, so, there’s no mention of the child’s actual weight, though her child clearly feels fat since she won’t shop with her mother because she doesn’t think she looks good. And right before that, the narrator makes it clear that The Talk is about weight.
This video is fairly innocuous, but still sends mixed messages. The “concerned” mother wants to know if the negligent mother has had The Talk about health with her fat child. Regardless of how sensitively they frame the conversation, or how they don’t mention how the daughter’s weight, it still implicitly makes the health talk a priority for fat children above and beyond thin children. But it’s a brief commercial, so let’s cut them some slack.
The second commercial (again, if you have to watch it, vote it down) features a man by himself. He returns to his cubicle with a styrofoam box which contains a burger and fries. As he sits down to his plastic cup of soda, he glances at the photos of his family and begins tapping his fingers on his desk.
“Wow,” I thought. “This shot has three kids, and only one is fat. Maybe Strong4Life really is for ALL families.”
We then see the father shake his head and say, “Why am I putting this off?”
And then, the camera returns to a shot of just one of the two picture frames:
After a long, lingering shot of this poor kid, the dad says, “We gotta have the talk.”
See, the father’s concerns aren’t really for all three children (assuming these are all his children). It is primarily for his fat son. And as he’s contemplating his boy’s obesity, the narrator chimes in with, “Today, parents say the most difficult conversation with their kids is not about sex or drugs.” The father picks up a french fry and examines it. “It’s about weight.” At that, the father drops the french fry, presumably cured of his love for cheeseburgers.
The third commercial (thumbs down, yo!) features a slender woman who walks into her kitchen, picks up a grocery list and reads some of the items. “Orange soda, cookies, ice cream,” she sighs a heavy sigh. “What are we doing to our kids?” She then glances at the counter and we get a nice, long shot of a half-empty container of cheese balls and potato chips. Another heavy sigh, and she says, “This has got to change.”
We then get the narrator back, along with a clever illustration of her claims. First, as she says, “Today, parents say the most difficult conversation with their kids,” we see this:
Then as she says, “is not about sex or drugs,” we see this:
But when the narrator says, “It’s about weight,” the camera slowly pans across this:
The scene blacks out and when it comes back up, the mother walks into the kitchen with a smile on her face and paper bag full of fruits and vegetables in her arms. Then her smile fades as she sees her husband come in the other way with two boxes of pizza. He says with a grin, “Hey hon, no cooking tonight.” She sighs heavy and shakes her head as he yells, “Hey kids, we’ve got pizza!” We then hear their thunderous fatty footsteps tromping through the house.
All three of these commercials make it abundantly clear that The Talk is for the parents of fat kids. The only difference between the shaming billboards and this campaign is that Strong4Life is trying to say that even though The Talk is about weight, you don’t have to talk to your kids about weight.
In fact, they go so far as to say The Talk isn’t about weight at all, despite their ads and infographics that emphasize the need for action from parents of fat kids.
To me, this new campaign seems like a step in the right direction that has been caught mid-step. Strong4Life seems to understand now that stigma and shame won’t help, but they still try to use stigma and shame to gain the attention of those who they believe need their message most (parents of fat kids).
The result is a dizzying attempt at emphasizing health over weight, while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of talking to your fat kids about health. Strong4Life seems to have gotten stuck between a traditional weight-based health campaign and the HAES approach.
It’s like that awkward stage in any werewolf movie when the monster is caught mid-transformation.
Strong4Life is stuck mid-transformation between moving away from stigma and shame and toward a health-centric approach. But their message, and their mission, is still focused on reducing childhood obesity rates, even though they have come to accept that they won’t “reverse this epidemic” by shaming fat kids.
Personally, I want to applaud Strong4Life for recognizing the error of their ways, but they still have a long ways to go before their campaign will be completely free from the kind of judgmental, looks-based healthcare that has plagued this campaign from the beginning.
Health for all families means ALL FAMILIES. Sending subtle messages to the parents of fat kids, then paying lip service to the importance of health for all just isn’t going to cut it.
*Screen time I question. Would we limit a kid to reading a book for just one hour? I mean, I would personally rather have my children reading books than watching TV (and ours do both during allotted times). I mean, if I take my kids to the park for a couple of hours on a Saturday, then come home, am I supposed to keep them moving indefinitely indoors or are they allowed to engage in things like imaginative play, which is relatively sedentary behavior? I think that TV definitely has a zombifying effect on children, so I personally try to limit it with our girls. But our days are a mix of activities and play and reading and, yes, watching TV. And on Saturday, it’s a time-honored tradition that parents get to sleep in a bit while the kids watch cartoons. So, if they get up at 6, I’m going to put a movie on for them because it’s Saturday. And since the dawn of time, Saturday has simply been waiting for cartoons to come along. And before cartoons it was radio shows and before radio shows it was puppet shows, I guess. My reason for limiting screen time is more developmental. I would rather they engage in imaginative play and read books than just engage in passive entertainment. But imaginative play can be just as sedentary as TV. So, what’s the difference? Do we say “Limit Lego time to one hour”? A child’s free time is like a healthy diet: it should be diverse and varied, but generally led by the child’s own instincts. In moderation, screen time is not bad, but how you define moderation is up to you. One hour seems kind of unrealistic to me, depending on the situation. Wow, this footnote got a bit out of hand, didn’t it?