Stop Sugarcoating It: Georgia’s Bittersweet Childhood Obesity Campaign

By Lauren Todd

The State of Georgia has launched a new public health campaign that takes a tough-love approach to combat childhood obesity. Strong4Life, created by the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, is a series of PSAs that feature overweight children alongside blunt comments and the phrase, “Stop Sugarcoating It, Georgia.” These ads address the finding that 75% of parents of overweight children do not recognize a problem. With nearly 40% of Georgia’s children overweight or obese, Strong4Life aims to scare families into making changes. While the ads certainly turn heads, they may blame the victim instead of offer manageable solutions.

Many professionals in the nutrition field feel that the campaign provides necessary shock value. Childhood obesity has taken the spotlight, featured in every medium from academic resources to popular media. Yet despite the nation’s war against obesity, many families deny a problem at home. “It pains me to say that while I think it is startling and unfortunate, it is what we need,” said Dr. Miriam Nelson of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention. “Many don’t understand that it is happening to them, their nieces and nephews, or the kids at school.” These campaigns seem to have alerted families, but it is uncertain whether they will engender positive change.

Like other child-oriented campaigns, Strong4Life has drawn attention to bullying. In one PSA, Tina states, “I don’t like going to school because the other kids pick on me.” Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence: a 2009 study published by Fox and Farrow in the Journal of Adolescence found that overweight kids were more likely to be verbally and physically bullied, a phenomenon mediated by the victim’s low self-worth and self-esteem. However, the Strong4Life campaign places blame on the victims instead of the bullies. If Tina wants to stop being picked on, Tina needs to lose weight. Blaming overweight children may generate helplessness instead of confidence. Shortly after these PSAs went live, The National Eating Disorders Association released a statement saying, “the ad campaign is most successful at shaming youth who are overweight and reinforcing societal prejudice against children who do not have an ‘ideal’ body type.” Should children be encouraged to lose weight as a means to fend off bullies or gain friends?

Bullying aside, the Strong4Life campaign hits on potential health implications associated with childhood obesity. In another PSA, Jaden says, “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.” It is common knowledge that obesity, even in children, is correlated with type II diabetes and hypertension. These diseases are traumatic when diagnosed in adults, let alone children. However, the ads focus primarily on losing weight as opposed to being more healthful. This can be problematic because low weight does not necessitate good health, nor does high weight necessitate poor health.

Aside from physical health, Strong4Life implies that thinner kids are happier kids. According to the journal, Pediatrics, BeLue and colleagues found that an increase in BMI was associated with an increased prevalence of emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation among youth aged 12 to 17. However, little research has been conducted to evaluate how weight loss in children influences psychological health, unless the child gets an eating disorder. Suggesting that losing weight will positively influence emotional health may be a false promise.

Finally, there are multiple reasons for the obesity epidemic related to policy, environment, and culture that an individual, especially a child has little control over. Placing the blame on the victim without direction decreases self-efficacy. At best, the child walks away wanting to make a change, but ill-equipped to do so. At worst, the child walks away feeling guilty and powerless. However, the next step in the campaign will seek to provide solutions to promote healthful diets and increase physical activity. Hopefully, focusing on action instead of blaming will empower families.

While the Strong4Life ads have succeeded in bringing attention to an issue, they have not encouraged children to make positive changes. Although the health of America’s youth needs to be improved, the jury is still out regarding how to tackle this issue. Ostracizing individuals may not be the best way to fight disease.

Lauren Todd is a second year student in the Nutrition Communication program at the Friedman School.  Her professional interests are in eating disorder prevention.  She likes to procrastinate by painting and playing fantasy football.

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