Childhood Obesity Billboards: Do They Help or Harm?

I’ve been watching this go by in the stream for a couple of weeks now.  Stark black-and-white photographs of  “fat kids” with polarizing one liners talking about diabetes and bullying.  I write frequently about childhood obesity here and I’m a strong advocate of working with families to help decrease the rates in this country.

Fat kids face real issues: increased bullying, lower sense of self-esteem, and very real medical issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and shortened life spans.

Does a billboard with a picture of a fat kid (okay, I hate typing that phrase and I never use it, but it seems to be the vernacular for this discussion) exploit the child and increase bullying?  Or does it open up discussion and raise awareness and maybe really help some kids?

I honestly don’t know, so I asked my almost 10-year-old, showing him the health initiative’s main site, Strong 4 Life.  I pointed to the picture of Bobby and said, “What do you see?”  He answered, “A fat kid.”  I said would you tease him?  He said, “Yes, he looks teasable.”

I hung my head in parental shame, but I kept prodding.

Me:  Does he look happy to you?

Son:  No, he looks sad.

Me:  Why do you think he’s sad?

Son:  Because he’s heavy.

Me:  So would you tease him because you know he’s sad because of his weight?

Son:  No, that would be mean. (Score one point for parental intervention!)

Me:  Do you have heavy kids in school?

Son:  Yes.

Me:  Do they get teased because they’re fat?

Son:  No, the teachers wouldn’t let that happen.

Me:  So do you think this billboard is helpful or hurtful?

Son:  I think it helps.

My son then said we could tell the kids in Georgia to move up to our school system so they wouldn’t feel sad.   We also watched the 15 and 30-second videos on the site that feature these kids.   My son realized how painful it can be to be overweight and struggling with it.

So back to the original question: does this campaign help or hurt kids?  In this little corner of a Boston suburb, it helped.  I was able to show my son why teasing based on how someone looks is bad and he understood and now knows it’s not okay to do that.  I also have to preface that he is in a public school with a very low-rate of obesity.  In my son’s grade there is literally one kid out of about 90 with a weight problem.

Our school system also has an incredibly strong anti-bullying stance. My son was unfortunately the target of bullies and I was amazed at how quickly everything was handled.  After a playground attack, I was standing at the principal’s office the next day and people were taking action within minutes.  The kids who bullied my son were immediately addressed (as were their parents) and anti-bullying curriculum was brought into the classroom.  It was pretty impressive.

There’s another side to this, however.  Not everyone has anti-bullying campaigns in their school.  Not everyone has parents who know they can intervene on behalf of their kids.  Do I believe some kids have taken this exposure of the obesity problem as an opportunity for bullying?  Sadly, yes, I’m sure that’s happened.  I’m sure the kids on the billboards have caught some flack and their parents too for “abusing” them.

I recently talked about childhood obesity and how it’s not fair to place all the blame on the parents.  It’s an easy cop out.  The obesity epidemic is far more complex than angrily pointing a finger at the Mom and Dad trying to raise their kids.  Pediatricians, the local community, and the local schools all need to be involved.  And don’t get me started on USDA-sanctioned school lunches …

Is the education my son got today worth it if another kid gets bullied somewhere else?

I turn the question to you.  My readers are smart, measured, and opinionated.  What do you think of these Georgia billboards?  Is this promoting bullying?  Is this helping to find a solution?  At the very least, it’s achieved the first objective; it’s gotten people talking.