Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Jumps on Fat Shaming Bandwagon

by on August 18, 2014

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Why would a pediatric healthcare organization whose stated mission is “To make kids better today and healthier tomorrow” think that it was either better or healthier to shame children for being overweight? That question comes to mind after viewing a disgraceful video produced by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The video, which was made in 2013 but seems to be making the rounds now, came to my attention via Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian family physician with focused practice in nutrition and obesity, who wrote on his blog Weighty Matters:

“Presumably the point of the ad is to cause viewers with weight, and parents of kids who may be struggling, to feel sufficient guilt, shame and self-loathing that they finally decide to change their ways. Well I’ve got news for the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta folks who produced this ad…if guilt or shame had any lasting impact on weight or behaviour the world would be skinny, as guilt and shame are the two things that the world bends over backwards to ensure that people with weight never run short of.”

The video blames parents for forming bad habits in their kids, and blames kids for stuffing themselves with sugary treats; even teachers and schools come in for a share of the blame, with a shot of a teacher handing out candy rewards in class and a revolting-looking school lunch.

Interestingly, there is a brief shot of a doctor telling the family that they must make a change, although, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article, “Even as rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes soar, researchers report that doctors are spending less time than ever talking to patients about nutrition because they lack time, training and optimism that patients can make lifestyle changes.”

Whenever anything originates in Atlanta (home of Coca-Cola), it is worth looking into what connection the event might have to Big Food or Big Soda. Fat shaming is one of industry’s tools – blaming the overweight for their condition instead of acknowledging the role of billions spent marketing unhealthy food and drinks, especially to children.

It is informative to look at the donor list of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, especially the top category, and see how many have ties to Coca-Cola (the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation) or to Emory University, the school commonly called “Coca-Cola University” both because of the enormous role Coke and its leaders have played in building and funding Emory over the past 100 years, and because of the large portion of the Emory endowment that has traditionally been invested in Coca-Cola stock.

It’s not surprising that in a town like Atlanta, where the top 10 employers include Walmart and Publix Supermarkets (both of which profit from the sale of sugary beverages and low nutrient/high calorie processed food), Emory University (“Coca-Cola U.”) and The Coca-Cola Co., the attitude that “If you are fat, it’s your fault” takes precedence over blaming the marketing of unhealthy food as the cause of obesity.

We have to expect that kind of attitude from Big Food, whose business is to sell more food and damn the consequences for public health. But when they are joined by an organization like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which lists its values as “Care about people, Passionate about kids, Dedicated to better”, it’s time to call BS.

The video is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life program, which it claims “makes improving family nutrition and physical activity habits fun and provides parents and caregivers the support they need to accomplish their goals.”

Newsflash – bashing and blaming parents is not “caring about people”, and a portrayal of a child as a “headless fatty” is not an example of being “passionate about kids”. Conveniently forgetting to mention the role that the food and beverage industry plays in the increasing rates of diabetes and obesity does not represent “dedication to better”.

Sure, parents need to focus on healthy eating at home, and help their children learn to make smart food choices. But Big Food makes that so much harder, targeting adds for the worst possible foods and beverages directly at children, especially children of color.

Try taking your children with you to do errands. As if it weren’t bad enough that the typical supermarket displays185 linear feet of candy at the checkout counter, now the worst processed food – chips, candy, cookies – is available everywhere, and impossible to avoid, right by the cash register at nearly every child-focused store from Toys’ R Us to Old Navy. The food industry encourages this, with reports (like this one sponsored by Coca-Cola and Mars) urging vendors to maximize their profits by pushing impulse sales of candy and drinks at “front end” locations.

The problem isn’t just caused by a lack of personal responsibility on the part of parents and kids. The food industry needs to take some responsibility too, for creating an environment where the worst possible food, and messages to “eat more”, are everywhere, all day long.

Shaming parents for not being strong enough to prevail, all on their own, over a well-funded industry hell-bent on hooking kids on junk food, does not help anyone. No doubt Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta does fine work, but no one would know that from viewing this video. I would never take my family for treatment to a place that portrays an overweight child as a “headless fatty”. Would you?

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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