News broke last week that Disney World chose to close its ‘Habit Heroes’ attraction at Epcot Center after taking considerable heat during the soft launch phase. I’m counting this as a significant victory in the war against social stigma, because ‘Habit Heroes’ was basically House of Horrors: Obesity Edition, designed to shame, terrify, and manipulate young visitors. Reading descriptions of the attraction, I was reminded of the evangelical Christian hell houses:
Visitors — up to 12 at a time — enter the 4,700-square-foot attraction through an old, back-alley gymnasium where they meet video superheroes Will Power and Callie Stenics. From there, the buff duo takes them on an action-packed fight against the enemies.
In the first of three interactive rooms, visitors confront (remote) Control Freak and blow up raining televisions. Next they take on Sweet Tooth and Snacker, and wage a food fight with video-arcade style guns that abolish junk food using healthy food as ammunition. Broccoli and apples knock out cream puffs and hot dogs.
Finally, the group upends Lead Bottom in a room where Just Dance-style technology gets everyone moving. (source)
On the surface, encouraging people of all ages to eat more fresh food and exercise in safe and enjoyable ways if possible seems like generally sound advice. It would be better if it came with a side of actually enabling those activities, like addressing huge disparities in the food system and providing children with safe places to get outdoors and move around. This information, however, is usually delivered alone, and in this heavyhanded shaming format, one which primarily sets up fat people as targets of bullying and abuse; visitors to ‘Habit Heroes’ would learn that fat is your own fault and that fat people are bad, rather than learning more about the complex social, dietary, genetic, and other factors involved in weight. They would also learn that it’s acceptable to target fat people for commentary and ‘advice’ because it would be ‘for their own good.’ And they wouldn’t learn about the difficulties involved in accessing fresh food and exercise.
Furthermore, this exhibit came with an extra-cynical side: It was sponsored by Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Like other insurance companies, these organizations relish finding ways to drop fat people from their coverage or deny it in the first place, and have shaming campaigns of their own aimed at fat adults. When numerous fat adults are too afraid to access routine medical care because of their size, well aware that they are likely to be mistreated by medical professionals, it’s very disturbing to see insurance companies reinforcing the idea that being fat is wrong, something to be ashamed about, something to fix and hide.
The fact is that fat patients are often treated like all their medical problems are a result of being fat. They are told repeatedly to lose weight when they present with any medical complaint, and may be denied treatment until they lose weight. Insurance companies reiterate this by refusing to provide coverage for necessary procedures if a patient is fat, and heavily rely on weight in pricing schedules, even if a patient has an excellent score on other metrics. If you are fat, you will pay more for insurance, regardless of other elements of your medical and family history.
I’m used to seeing organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) speaking out in opposition of things like this, which they did:
We’re appalled to learn that Disney, a traditional hallmark of childhood happiness and joy, has fallen under the shadow of negativity and discrimination…It appears that Disney now believes that using the tool of shame, favored so much by today’s healthcare corporations, is the best way to communicate with children.
What was more surprising was who else spoke up. Yoni Freedhoff, a specialist in obesity medicine, was incensed when he found out about the attraction. I don’t necessarily expect experts in the field of bariatrics to use the kind of language he did, and it was refreshing:
Because after all, kids with obesity are obviously just gluttonous and lazy and they probably lie around and eat junk food all day, right?…It couldn’t possibly be a problem with the environment the kids are growing up in, could it? Geez, kids these days, they just don’t try hard enough, do they?
Freedhoff skewered the shame approach, pointing out from a professional perspective that it doesn’t work. The man specialises in the treatment of fat patients, and doesn’t endorse, at all, this handling of the subject. Freedhoff and I would probably disagree on a lot of subjects, especially surrounding fat and health, but one thing we both seem to agree on is that making children feel like crap is actually a pretty shitty way to get them thinking about personal health and wellness.
And that making children feel like crap on their vacations is really pointless and cruel; especially since, of course, some of those kids could have been attending this attraction with their fat parents, who would have been reminded yet again that they are viewed as targets because of their size, and anything goes when it comes to fighting the brave war against obesity, including shaming.
Tackling the Epcot attraction was excellent, and it’s notable at the outcry about it was so substantial that it was closed within two days of Freedhoff’s post, illustrating why sometimes making a lot of noise can be highly effective. Disney’s clearly withdrawn and rethought the campaign; I doubt it’s going to be replaced with, say, a food justice-themed attraction, but at least the company knows to be more careful about how it frames fat, and fat people, in the future.
Unfortunately, the horrific Strong4Life campaign is still chugging along in Georgia, featuring a series of stark images of fat children with doom-laden messages intended to strike the fear of fatness into the reader. Writing about the campaign, Pia at Adios Barbie crysallised what it’s like to live fat in the US:
Since these kinds of “war against obesity” campaigns have cropping up I have felt incredibly alienated in my own country. I feel unwelcome here simply because I don’t fit into a manufactured ideal of perfection. There have been actual moments when I have found myself reacting in panic to people who feel justified in yelling out to me, “keep eating that way and you’ll die fatty.”
It doesn’t work, though — shame is not a catalyst for change; it is a paralytic. Anyone who has ever carried extreme personal shame knows this. Shame doesn’t make you stronger, nor does it help you to grow, or to be healthy, or to be sane. It keeps you in one place, very, very still.
If we care about the health and well-being of fat children, we’ll protect them from bullies, whether they take individual or institutional form. If we care about the health and well-being of children of all sizes, we’ll remove weight stigma and weight-loss goals from nutrition and exercise advice.
There’s overwhelming evidence that shame is not an effective tool for change, and that it can lead to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other complications. Fat kids, and fat adults, already know they’re fat, and they already know what society thinks about that, because this is a message that is hammered in over and over again, every day, and in every possible way. They don’t need multimillion dollar shaming campaigns to remind them that many people think they are what is wrong with the world, and to inform them that they’re terrible, no good, very bad people who are clearly just too lazy to lose weight, don’t care about their bodies, and are an offence to the eyes.
Campaigns like this persist because the people designing them think that fat is something to be ashamed of; fat on its own, as an entity, regardless of anything else. And there’s a reason people still believe that.