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Guess What? Shaming People For Being Fat Doesn’t Magically Make Them Thin!

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.”

Lesley Kinzel has also written about her experiences with fat shaming, noting that:

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.

 And Marilyn Wann argues that telling children not to be fat is a high risk message:

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.


  1. anhiebananhie wrote:

    Interestingly enough, shaming people over anything will not make them magically stop– be it fatshaming, slutshaming, poorshaming, etc. Unfortunately we live in a society where speaking up for one’s self and not being within norms is considered shameful, so all of this vile behavior continues. End rant.

    Monday, March 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  2. elayne wrote:

    “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.”

    Truer words have never been written. I experienced severe back pain for the first time at age 15, height 5’10”, weight 137 pounds. I was treated compassionately and with strong painkillers.

    About 15 years later, I got sick with a virus, probably mono. I was bedridden and literally too weak to eat for about a month. My mother (who had come to take care of me and my son during this illness) wondered aloud about a feeding tube, and tried to force me to drink supplement shakes, spoonfeeding me food I didn’t have to chew. When I got a little bit of energy back, I expected to see a skeletal frame in my mirror – by out best estimation, I had been consuming 300-600 calories a day, max. Instead, I had GAINED nearly 50 lbs.

    The viral illness apparently triggered fibromyalgia, which I’ve been dealing with ever since. And every time I get a flare-up of pain and weakness, my appetite falls off to the point I have to force myself to eat, while my metabolism goes bonkers and I gain weight like a fat-magnet.

    When I go to doctors for my back pain now? I’m told that it’s *obviously* due to my weight, and they don’t feel comfortable giving me strong medication since my obesity is an indicator of low to zero willpower, placing me at a high risk for abusing the drugs. The whole 15 year history of back-pain-while-skinny and responsible medication use just… doesn’t exist. And when I try to explain the pattern of the flare-ups, appetite loss, and weight gain, I’m told I’m lying, even though they have documentation of that as well.

    I try not to care about it, because I’ve watched my mother fixate her entire life around her weight, judging her own worth (and others’) by what the scale says, and I don’t want to have any part of that. But when all the “experts” tell you repeatedly that your personal experience is invalid or a lie or impossible, it gets to be quite an uphill battle.

    Monday, March 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Xeginy wrote:

    @Elayne: I threw my back out last year, and ended up going to the local chiropractic college to get it looked at for free. Thankfully, the dude who looked at my back didn’t say a single word about my weight, just did this thang and then showed me some stretches. My mom, on the other hand, was convinced that my fatness had caused me to slip a disc and be forced to have back surgery. (According to the dude at the college, I just had a knotted up muscle in my butt.)

    Conversely, I have had an odd number of people try to convince that if I only lost weight, MY EPILEPSY WOULD BE CURED. My neurologist even agreed with me that that sounded stupid, but would that shut anyone up? Of course not.

    Monday, March 5, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Ms. Elise wrote:

    The best thing I’ve heard is that I need to exercise more and eat healthy – when I was eating 1800 KCal/day and doing vigorous karate 2 hours, 3-4x a week. Because, obviously, I was fat and therefore lazy. It wasn’t at all that my hypothyroidism was causing my body to gain weight when it should have been losing it like crazy. That’s silly talk.

    Monday, March 5, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  5. “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.”

    You are on FIRE of late, s.e. I never used to see your posts on here as something to consciously look forward to. Please keep up the good work.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  6. Nanasha wrote:

    I hate to think that stuff like this is a “conspiracy” but at the same time it really does bug me that these so-called “health care” companies are using ONE non-science-based metric (weight/size) to DENY HEALTH CARE to a large swath of the population and it seems like every year they’re inching the BMI (which doesn’t work and is not scientifically based as a good way to measure individual body shape composition much less health, by the way) down and down, so that more people become “obese” without even gaining a pound as the ruler used to measure slides down and down for no reason other than “let’s create some hysteria and sell some diet pills” (well, that’s the only reason I can really see for it).

    I also despise health INSURANCE because the whole idea of INSURANCE is that they don’t WANT you to take advantage of it. They want you to pay and pay and pay and pay and NEVER collect because then they lose MONEY. So the fact that many fat people are suffering from SERIOUS MEDICAL CONDITIONS and OBESITY IS OFTEN A SYMPTOM OF SAID CONDITIONS, instead, these companies advise doctors to suggest ineffective (and often dangerous) diet and weight loss programs that patients will have to PAY OUT OF POCKET FOR (see what they did thar, now they don’t have to pay for it at all, and their sponsor gets your hard earned cash for a “solution” that doesn’t work permanently if at all!), and if the fat person comes back, just look condescending, try some more shaming techniques and rinse and repeat until said fat person is so ashamed that he or she never goes back to the doctor EVER! And BONUS TIME, if they get sicker and sicker without ever getting anything out of the insurance they’re paying out the butt for, then HEY IT DOES NOT MATTER that said fat person ends up dying way earlier because of untreated medical conditions (“Hey,” the insurance companies can say snarkily, “What did they expect by DARING TO BE OBESE?! It was their fault ANYWAY!”).

    The amount of research, time and effort that I had to put into finding the right tests to DEMAND of my doctors, to find a size friendly primary care doctor and endocrinologist and to DEMAND that they get to the bottom of my strange and frighteningly high testosterone, crazy weight gain with regular exercise and balanced diet, and other weird symptoms FINALLY led me to my PCOS diagnosis, and after giving birth, my body attacked my thyroid so now I’m a Hashimoto’s patient too. I actually gained a TON of weight because I actually THOUGHT that I was supposed to feel like that after having a (very good nurse and sleep through the night) baby, but little did I know, living in a fog where your body feels like it’s carrying a bunch of boulders is how it feels to NOT HAVE A THYROID AT ALL. OH HO HO HO. It is only by the grace of having established those doctor allies in the first place that I was probably even tested for thyroid problems in the first place, and even then, I still had to fight to raise my dose when my symptoms were still bad even though my numbers were supposedly “fine.”

    And of course, I must add that I was lucky because I am otherwise physically able, white, have privilege, education, etc to even be able to GET to this point. Too many women have NONE or very FEW of these options and they do NOT deserve to be kept sick and hurting (regardless of their weight) just because they don’t have what I have. It’s backwards and barbaric, plain and simple.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 4:07 am | Permalink
  7. FlameWriting wrote:

    Re: The Billboard campaign, are you aware of this counter-campaign?
    Pretty awesome stuff right there. 🙂

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  8. Schnookums wrote:

    I don’t have much to add beyond a wholehearted approval of talking about this. I’ve got my own horror stories with doctors as well, the big one being when I finally brought up my hip and knee pain. Which as it happens was a chronic condition that existed when I was downright skinny, actually (weighing 150 pounds less then I do now.) And yet I still got the ‘you must lose weight or it will just get worse’. Gee thanks! So Doctor, is your theory now that my fat went back in time to sabotage my own body? So yes, now that I’m seriously using my health care I’ve become VERY sensitive to any sort of fat shaming myself.

    Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  9. Whitney wrote:

    This Disney “attraction” makes me sick. If they really want to have a health place to visit, they could create an awesome cool playground and staff it with fun people of all sizes who teach kids to do things they never thought they could do. A rock wall, unicycles, cartwheels, ice skating! And there would be a no forcing them into anything rule for parents, too. Sigh. A girl (who wants to rock climb) can wish!

    Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Anne wrote:

    In the same category, a Colorado initiative encourages people to look around and identify fat people. Because apparently obesity is caused by not knowing whether the people around you are overweight:

    Friday, March 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  11. Francisco wrote:

    I feel weird about this because I was overweight as a child and I joined the Weight Watchers program (I was the only child, but I specifically requested to be able to do it after I heard about it). I understand that there are a lot of problematic elements with Weight Watchers and that focusing on weight loss does not work for everyone, but I was able to learn how to manage my food intake, nutrition, how physical activity related to how much you should eat in a day, etc. I really just did need that kind of advice; it wasn’t genetics, “complex social factors,” or anything like that. I was still technically considered overweight by the time I loss the opportunity to keep going, but just barely so in a way that did not have a significant impact on my life. It definitely improved my life and I think young people should be given that kind of advice because not all of them know it.

    I understand that some people who weigh more are making the best choices available to them, but a lot of us aren’t/weren’t for various reasons. I feel like Fat Acceptance sometimes criticizes resources that, even if they are flawed, would help other people just because those resources don’t work for them.

    By the way I am still totally opposed to shaming fat people and was definitely treated in ways I shouldn’t have been when I weighed more. But I don’t think telling people to watch television less and avoid junk food is bad.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink