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Negative obesity campaigns do more damage than good

It may seem like old news, but obesity continues to be problematic for this country. A 2010 study from the Center of Disease Control CDC found that over one-third 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese, which means that they have a body mass index BMI of 30 or higher. The future does not look much better, either: The CDC recently released a report suggesting that this statistic could climb above 50 percent by 2030.

In an effort to combat the worsening issue, many awareness campaigns have been launched. Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of various strategies these campaigns have adopted and found, unsurprisingly, that Americans respond to positive health campaigns over negative campaigns that specifically mention weight or obesity. While obesity is a public health concern, the best way to start fighting the issue is to listen to the people who are living with it.

Some may argue that weight is a personal choice rather than a public concern. While every person has a right to make their own choices regarding their health, medical spending due to preventable, obesity-related disease falls somewhere between $147 and $210 billion annually, according to the CDC. If the projected figures for 2030 are realized, those costs could increase by $48 to $60 billion annually. So while personal health should be the decision of the individual, there is a substantial public interest in lowering rates of obesity.

While obesity is the large-scale problem, the solution is much, much smaller in scale. Most individuals do not choose to be overweight, but make day-to-day choices that comprise a generally unhealthy lifestyle. Successful campaigns target those daily problems rather than the national issue of obesity. The study found that participants were frustrated by campaigns that condemned their choices with slogans like: “It’s not a diet … it’s a lifestyle,” but offered no advice for how to change their habits.

It seems that body-negative campaigns are designed to combat a culture of permissiveness regarding obesity. Yet, such a culture does not exist in the U.S., where there are already significant stigmas against overweight individuals in the media. What we need in the national dialogue on obesity is body-positive advice on healthy living. The Yale study indicated that campaigns that offered specific strategies for healthier lifestyles were received better than studies that generally condemned obesity. Rather than continuing the pattern of condemning obesity or suggesting that obese individuals lose weight, anti-obesity campaigns should offer strategies for improving nutrition and fitness.

Furthermore, negative campaigns can actually have a damaging effect on their target demographic. The Yale study found that obese individuals often respond to offensive and hurtful messages in unhealthy ways, such as binge eating or refraining from exercise. These campaigns also reinforce media messages about body image, which can manifest themselves in the form of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder. Overall, they generally contribute to the negative social dialogue with regard to overweight individuals.

It could be said that negative campaigns are simply part of a realistic discussion of American society and that obese individuals should be aware of their situations. Anti-obesity campaigns that use harsh language intend for the shock vocabulary to attract attention to their campaigns. While there is a place for blunt honesty, there is also much to be said for listening to those whom you are trying to help. If obese individuals turn away from these campaigns, the campaigns are simply ineffective. Leaders of the Yale study credit the unhelpful and sometimes damaging nature of these studies to a lack of research prior to their release. This is unacceptable: Campaigns should be constantly reevaluating and adjusting their strategies to best reach their target demographics.

We need public health campaigns that address the issue of obesity, but spending public funding on ineffective campaigning is only worsening the problem, both in terms of the health of individuals and on a public spending level. The dialogue on campus is a fantastic example of body-positive, health-based discussion of weight. As Oles, we can carry this positive discussion of weight off campus. We can only hope that future health campaigns will reevaluate their strategies and adopt a more empathetic message similar to the ones we are familiar with at St. Olaf.

Carly Tsuda ’15 is from Fullerton, Calif. She majors in American studies.

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