In a new study released this week, experts concluded that anti-obesity campaigns aimed to get millions of overweight Americans healthy are backfiring. In fact, the very ads intended to encourage us to slim down could indeed be causing us to just pack on more pounds. It’s troubling and discouraging for everyone, and it’s time to admit that these tactics (a.k.a., fat shaming) are not working.
Released in the International Journal of Obesity on Tuesday, experts from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity claim that anti-obesity campaigns telling us to eat less and exercise more actually “instill less motivation to improve health.”
On the flip side, the messages that do work at changing our behaviors are the ones that don’t mention obesity at all. Why? Because they’re not shaming our nation’s 78 million obese adults and 12.5 million obese children.
Case in point: The Georgia campaign by Strong4Life that displayed anti-fat billboards around the state (where 40% of all kids are overweight or obese). The ads reminded–or rather, shamed–parents and kids that being overweight is not OK. “Warning: It’s Hard To Be A Little Girl If You’re Not,” one billboard read. Another said, “Warning: Fat Prevention Begins At Home. And The Buffet Line.”
Did they get attention? Certainly. Nationwide, actually. But did they work? No.
These messages are harsh–yet true–on many accounts, but they only serve to perpetuate the stigma against the overweight and obese. A stigma that says fat people are lazy, weak, unattractive and lack self-control. The same stigma that has strangers, prospective employers and even some doctors judging people they don’t even know. It’s shameful, really. And trying to guilt people into dropping excess pounds is not the answer.
So how does our nation fight this obesity epidemic? It takes positive, helpful campaigns, according to this latest study. Ones that encourage people to get out and exercise, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and live a healthy lifestyle. Most of all, it’s campaigns that don’t pit us versus them. Because making someone feel badly about themselves is not motivating.
As Nina Savelle-Rocklin, a Sherman Oaks psychotherapist who specializes in treating those with eating disorders, told the L.A. Times, all of this negativity just leads to more problems:
Shame is about feeling bad about who you are. That message “is unbearable and intolerable” to most, and those who quell negative emotions by eating “are going to turn to food…. It’s just a recipe for disaster.