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Shame on you, Victoria!

By BodyMatters therapist Sarah McMahon 

I was extremely disturbed yesterday when I was advised that the Western Australia’s  “Live Lighter: Toxic Fat” ad campaign is now being launched in Victoria. These advertisements rely on a shock-and-awe approach that we know does not result in sustained behaviour change. Their supporters argue that using “shock” has been beneficial in other public health campaigns such as tobacco & road safety. However eating and body image are completely different phenomonon. People who exist in a fat body are already usually very aware of that fact. Weight based stigma and shaming is rife in Australia- lets face it, if shocking or shaming fat people “worked” wouldn’t they be “skinny” by now?

Live Lighter’s Toxic Fat campaign is not new. BodyMatters co-founder Lydia Turner advocated passionately and tirelessly about these advertisements two years ago, writing about it’s potential danger, campaigning in the media and beginning a change.org campaign against the ads. Despite Lydia’s best efforts the campaign continued.

Campaigns like this increase obesogenic behaviour

The new “LiveLighter” campaign to me is reminiscent of Strong4Life’s anti-obesity lobbying “Stop the Cycle” you-tube video. This advertisement depicts an “overweight” male, lying in an emergency war. His breathing is laboured, oxygen is started. The nurse describes the case “Heart attack, 5-9, 300 pounds, 32 years old…”. “How the hell does that happen?” the doctor asks. The video proceeds with a series of flashbacks throughout the mans life depicting a predictable sequence of “junk food”, sedentary behaviour and ignored warnings from health professionals. It is traced all the way back to his mother attempting to pacify him with chips when he cries as a baby. His weight, lifestyle are mother are blamed for the problem outcome. If you do watch it, you will be shocked.

I have many issues with these types of ads.

Four of them?

1. It depicts a narrow & unfair impression of what causes overweightedness. Essentially it says the formula for fatness is eating “junk food”, lazing around and ignoring medical advice. The Live Lighter campaign is no different- just a little more subtle.

2. It blames fat people (and their mothers) for their fatness, positioning not only themselves but their parents as the villains that “do it to themselves”. In many cases this is not correct. Public health experts agree that “the obesity epidemic” is indeed a result of many socio-political, population based risk factors. In Australia these include:

  • familial history of obesity
  • indigenous background
  • ethnic background (particularly an overseas birth, with the risk of becoming overweight increasing with tenure in Australia since migration)
  • geographic areas of socioeconomic disadvantage
  • limited post-school education
  • low income households
  • regional and remote locations

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Of course there are  many individual factors, many of which are not lifestyle based.  These include:

    • our unique genetic make up
    • our mental health (which may require us to consume medications that increase risk of weight gain)
    • biomedical risk factors such as glucose tolerance
    • chromosomal abnormalities
    • ethnic heritage
    • multifactorial disease

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3. It reinforces the myth that fatness predicts early death. Quite frankly, this is incorrect. Research is quite clear that it is only at statistical extremes that fatness increases medical risk. On the contrary, research actually suggests increased weight actually protects against many poor health outcomes.

Research that does correlate overweightedness & increased health risk does not typically demonstrate them to be causal. This is because other behaviours associated with sitting above ones natural body weight, such as sedentary behaviour, confounds this research. What this means is that these studies can not tell if it is excess adipose tissue or the sedentary behaviour that increases poor health outcomes.

Other research suggests  that dramatic and unsuccessful attempts to lose weight, usually resulting in weight cycling, are perhaps more dangerous than “obesity” itself.

4. In my experience there are significant “unintended side effects” for these advertisements, such as eating disorders. Its been said that “the odd anorexic is a small price to pay” for the war against obesity. This is certainly not true when we think about the significant cost of eating disorders– everything from high mortality to the burden of disease- anorexia is not a small price to pay. However for those who arent persuaded, consider the fact that fat shaming indeed contributes to our epidemic of disordered eating. Many of the solutions that Live Lighter prescribes are the very things we diagnose in disordered eating:

  • Watch your portion size
  • Avoid sugary drinks
  • Sit less
  • Cut back on alcohol
  • Watch the fats you eat
  • Cut back on sugar
  • Be active every day
  • Count kilojoules
  • Healthy recipe swap

Other shocking fat shaming- but “the people” talk back!

Strong4Life fat shamed before. They featured images of fat kids with “Warning” tag lines that blatantly shamed them: “Warning- Chubby kids may not outlive their parents”; “Warning-  Fat kids become fat adults”; Warning- Big bones did not make me this way, big meals did”; Warning- He has his fathers eyes, his laugh, and maybe even his diabetes”.

You may recall, an overwhelming number of people responded to this campaign by creating parody ads, taking a stand against fat shaming and instead highlighting some far more important messages:

You can seem more here.

To see so many people fight back with the I Stand campaign was phenomenal.  BodyMatters cofounder, Lydia Turner and myself were also thrilled to take a stand.

Over to you!

It has been said that the standard you walk by is the standard you set. If you agree the Live Lighter campaign is dangerous, let us know! Let others know!! Let the campaign originators know! Let the Cancer Council know! Let the Heart Foundation know! Finally, share ideas with other people who agree with you. We need to take a stand on this issue. Please let us know what ideas you have.