Georgia obesity campaign sparks fierce online reaction

women in bikinis The I STAND photo series aims to reflect happy and healthy bodies of all sizes

A Georgia hospital designed a campaign to tell hard truths about childhood obesity. Is it tough love or too harsh?

For Dr Mark Wulkan, surgeon-in-chief for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, overweight children are a problem.

"Georgia is second in the nation on childhood obesity, and that's a top 10 list we want to get out of as fast as we can," he says.

As the largest paediatric healthcare provider in the state, he says: "We saw the problem as something that we should take some responsibility for, and something that we had to fix.

"We're seeing very young children in our clinic that had high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease. The long-term health impact for our state, looking at the numbers, is tremendous."

The time for "warm and fuzzies", he says, was over. So instead, his hospital created an aggressive campaign, based in part off a previously successful anti-methamphetamine campaign.

This time the target wasn't drugs, but obesity.

Part of the Strong4Life campaign included giant billboards and bus shelter ads, with photos of grim-looking, overweight children and dire warnings about their future, such as "Chubby isn't cute if it leads to type two diabetes" and "Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid".

Shock value
Marilyn Wann Marilyn Wann poses as part of a photo series designed to counter the campaign

But while proponents saw a no-nonsense wake-up call, many people across the country saw obese children under attack, and worried the billboards played up dangerous stereotypes about health and size.

"When you're fat - I calculated this - you're subjected to 386,170 negative messages a year. When you're constantly stigmatised, you can internalise that," says Ragen Chastain, who runs the blog Dances With Fat.

That these messages were targeted to children especially upset her readers.

"Some people identified with the bullied fat kids that they once were. Some parents identified with their own kids and others realised that humiliation is no form of healthcare," she says.

"It got them to say this isn't right."

Ms Chastain says that while she supports healthy habits and movement for children of all sizes, singling out overweight young people feels dangerous and unfair.

National reaction

So she decided to start raising funds to launch a counter-campaign, this one with positive messages for children of all sizes.

On the first day, the Support All Kids Billboard project raised $12,000 (£7,563). Collections still continue, and they are aiming to raise $20,000 (£12,606) with the help of a matching grant

Ms Chastain says they plan to run one large billboard, a few smaller billboards and several bus shelter ads in the Atlanta area.

She hopes the billboards will go up in March.

"We want kids to have tangible proof that they are respected and valued in the body they have now," she says.

Young woman Maya Walters told US TV that taking part in the Georgia campaign helped her confidence

Hers was just one of the online campaigns making noise.

Fat activist Marilyn Wann designed a template so that people could create their own version of the Strong4Life advertisement, featuring a more upbeat picture and inspirational message.

These photos were posted online, with messages like "I stand for happy and healthy children of all sizes" and "I stand for dignity, kindness and the delights of diversity". Many have been collected on Tumblr.

Meanwhile, Shannon Russell, who runs the blog Fierce, Freethinking Fatties launched a continued campaign against the ads. Every day, he posted on his blog about the billboards, while also writing letters to the hospital staff and commenting on their Facebook page.

As first reported by the BBC, Mr Russell also solicited letters of support from public officials, and received a response from a top official at the National Institutes of Health. In the letter, Alan Guttmacher, director of the Institute of Child Health and Human Development, agreed that the Strong4Life campaign "carries a great risk of increasing stigma" for overweight and obese children.

"I've been blogging about this every day since January 5th, and I'm exhausted," Russell said. "But I won't stop until the billboards come down."

While many of the billboards are already down, says a spokesperson for the hospital, some still remain in targeted areas of high childhood obesity.

Online activism advances

Once, it was easy to dismiss bloggers and online activists as complainers with keyboards. But recent successes have demonstrated the power of the web to organise and amplify the voice of average Americans.

• After Bank of American announced a $5 monthly fee for debit card user, 300,000 angry consumers signed a petition. Another angry customer fuelled a national Facebook campaign encouraging people to change banks. The fee was revoked a month later

• Thanks to strong social media reaction, it only took a week for Susan G Komen for the Cure to reverse their decision to discontinue grants to Planned Parenthood. At the same time, more than 10,0000 donors, mostly online, helped Planned Parenthood raise $3m

Mixed messages

For Dr Wulkan, tough love is the best way to fight what he sees as a public health crisis.

"The Strong4Life movement is about solutions.

"It's about saying the first steps in making any change is recognising you have a problem," he says, and notes that the ads were just one part of a comprehensive plan to tackle childhood obesity.

Ms Chastain says that labelling the way someone looks as a problem instead of focusing on behaviours isn't the solution to better health. "It's not an either-or. We can be for developing healthy habits in kids of all sizes without humiliating any kids at all," she says.

Throughout this entire controversy, both Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and those who oppose the campaign say they want the same thing: for kids to grow up happy and healthy.

But the fight over what's best remains contentious, with neither side looking to back down any time soon.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    If we cannot stop overweight people from becoming obese then that shows that we are on the wrong track. Take a look at how many children take a bus or get a ride to school in the USA then need a ride to after school activities. No one is forced to walk anywhere , anymore !

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.


    Additionally, the widespread use of fructose and high-fructose corn syrup is, and has been, destroying this nation's health for several decades. Fructose is a poison: it's technically a sugar, but the body processes it in the liver where it is converted to fat. It also inhibits the hormone Leptin, the "I'm full" hormone, from reaching the brain.

    This is what we feed our kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    66. Barry Hamilton "the number one reason for obesity is McDonald's $1 Value Menu".

    Wrong! People simply eat too much!

    It's simple math. Your body needs a certain amount of calories to maintain a particular weight. Eat more than that and guess what, you gain weight, even with exercise.

    Cheap fast food has been around for decades. Eat what you want but eat small portions and in moderation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Being fat is no good! Eating too much is a habitual and psychological issue that one should strive to overcome

    On another note, why is this article titled and presented as if somehow Georgia is a country or a even a part of the UK? Stop trying to be so familiar with aspects of our country as if somehow you are Americans- you are not. Again, Georgia is a state, not a country or nation in America!

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    This isn't about hate. I seriously doubt Dr. Wulkan is waging a war on fat children, and it's a mistake to see it that way. We live in an era of rampant censorship flying under the flag of political correctness.

    Perhaps this isn't the classiest approach, but it isn't intended to be. It's about personal acceptance of faults, and moving your life forward.

    This is intended to solve a problem.


Comments 5 of 121



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