“Fat and happy” illusion as hard to shed as pounds
May 2, 2012 by dickey.carolyn
Billboards and public service announcements urging parents to help their kids eat less and exercise more are nearly inescapable these days, and for the most part they are about as exciting as “buckle up” ads for seatbelts.
A notable exception is Strong4Life, a children’s weight-loss campaign that Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta launched in 2011. These ads set off a storm of controversy by depicting fat children who are obviously unhappy, paired with slogans that have been denounced as insensitive or even exploitative.
One ad shows a girl frowning into the camera, arms crossed. Beneath the image is a “Warning” label in all caps, followed by the words, “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.”
Shown this and several of the other Strong4Life ads, one Madison County, Georgia, resident reflected on their message.
“I think the ads are kind of controversial because not everybody who is big is unhappy, because these kids clearly look unhappy,” said Raya MacDonald, a sixteen year-old cashier at the Ingles grocery store in Ila. “I have some bigger people that I’m friends with and they’re some of the happiest people in the world.”
Although MacDonald believes her overweight friends to be joyful, recent studies indicate just the opposite. These findings were the focus of an expert panel during the Association of Health Care Journalists national conference in Atlanta last month.
“Several years back, a researcher looked at the quality of life in kids and it turns out that overweight and obese kids are about as happy as kids getting chemotherapy,” said Mark Wulkan, surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Far from making kids happy, Wulkan said that carrying excess pounds makes it harder for children to function normally in psychosocial and physical terms. “They just want to be kids at the end of the day,” he said.
The problem of being happy despite being overweight or obese was explored in detail by pediatrician Stephanie Walsh, who cares for kids at Children’s Healthcare. She was one of several practicing doctors who conducted focus groups with families throughout Georgia, gathering their thoughts about the rising epidemic of childhood obesity.
The researchers found that many parents could acknowledge that their child was overweight or obese, but “they downplayed it if they thought they were happy,” Walsh said. “So they were fluffy but happy. Chunky but happy. Husky but happy. And 75 percent of the parents who had overweight or obese kids didn’t see it as a problem.” The idea for the ad campaign began percolating about three years ago at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“All the clinicians, including myself, were seeing all these kids coming in,” said Walsh. “We were seeing the 11- and 12- year-olds with Type 2 diabetes. We were seeing the eight year olds who had two surgeries on their legs because they were so heavy that they became bowed. Once I had a one-hundred pound four- year -old in my clinic.”
The doctors saw this as a medical crisis, and their discussions led to the ad campaign that critics say has gone too far. Despite controversy, the facts remain: nearly one million kids in Georgia are now overweight or obese.
Fourteen percent of these kids are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Among the states, Georgia ranks second in terms of childhood obesity, moving from third place only a year ago and now surpassed only by Mississippi.
As excess weight leads to more children with Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and early heart disease, America’s kids – for the first time in 200 years –are expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.