A blunt new ad campaign in Georgia, “Stop Sugarcoating,” featuring images of miserable-looking overweight children is stirring up a national controversy. While the ad campaign aims to increase awareness of childhood obesity, many parents are concerned it will only cause more stigmatization of overweight kids.
While I agree that these ads are quite shocking and understand why they have been met with criticism, I do believe that a hard-hitting campaign may be the wake-up call needed to prevent a catastrophic public health crisis. The point of these ads is to spark discussion about childhood obesity. And if you have been on Twitter recently, you will see that this has been accomplished. While it is uncomfortable to watch these ads, it’s when people are uncomfortable that change occurs.
With nearly 1 million, or 40 percent, of kids in Georgia considered overweight or obese, it is imperative that parents understand that this is a grave issue that cannot be ignored. The truth is that, as the campaign points out, a whopping 50 percent of people surveyed didn’t recognize childhood obesity as a problem. What’s more, 75 percent of parents with obese kids don’t acknowledge their children as having weight issues. We all seem to think this is somebody else’s problem. Bringing these issues to the forefront sparks discussion and forces parents to confront the problem. These kids can’t be helped if their parents don’t acknowledge that help is needed.
As a pediatrician and child obesity expert who speaks with overweight and obese kids every day, I have seen firsthand the bullying and stigmatization these kids live with. Given my clinical experience, I don’t believe these ads will increase the bullying of these kids; they are already getting bullied day in and day out. As these ads are already out there, we should use them as an opportunity to address the issue at hand; our kids are overweight and we need to help them get healthy.
Here are some dos and don’ts for parents when it comes to talking to kids about weight:
1. It’s All About Health: While the ads may use the word “fat”, your conversation should not. Instead of focusing on “fat” or “thin”, talk about health and good nutrition. This way, even a thin parent can have this conversation. It is very possible that your child will initially get upset and accuse you of thinking he is fat. If this happens, simply steer the conversation back to your child’s health. ““I am not worried about your looks. It is your health that concerns me. Your body would be healthier if you weighed a little less. Let’s work together to learn to eat well.”
2. We Can Do It!: Instead of saying “You need to eat healthier”, try, “We need to eat healthier.” I have chosen to say ‘we’ need to eat healthier’ because this sounds less accusatory and alerts your child that you are both in it together.
3. Let’s Take Action: Be sure that you end the conversation with concrete suggestions of things you can do to be healthier. For example, suggest a trip to the grocery store to pick up some healthy foods, sign up for a local exercise class or go for a family jog each night. The idea is to end the conversation with a goal your child can accomplish so the prospect of “losing weight and getting healthy” doesn’t seem so daunting..
Remember that your long-term goal as a parent is to raise a person who is comfortable with herself and knows that she is loved, regardless of weight or size. Your child should also know, however, that part of loving yourself is taking care of your body and keeping it healthy. Children who feel loved learn to love themselves and are more likely to make healthy choices.