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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Disney's War on Fat Kids: Why Is It Trying to Be the Hateiest and Unhealthiest Place on Earth?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 10:30 AM

  • Mark Richards

Visitors to the Habit Heroes exhibit at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center walk into Will Powers Gym, where they respond to a Snack Attack ("It's food fight time!") by shooting broccoli at sugary foods and doing high kicks to force a fat, lazy, gluttonous villain named Lead Bottom to exercise. (If I weren't a disciplined, veggie-eating exercise lover, I'd make a great Disney villain.)

We need Disney's interactive "innovention" to spread this message? How many times a day do we already see fat villains? (Because only someone truly evil could enjoy life as a fat person or be such a lazy glutton? And all fatties eat all the time, dontcha know?)

"How else will we make people understand that if you are fat, you are not welcome at the 'happiest place on Earth?'" asks Deb Lemire, president of the professional organization for Health At Every Size, with the appropriate sarcasm.

From the Habit Heroes exhibit at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center
  • From the Habit Heroes exhibit at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center

Disney's anti-childhood-"obesity" exhibit, created in partnership with Florida Blue and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, opened briefly last month before closing indefinitely for "retooling," amid all sorts of well-earned criticism for stereotyping and stigmatizing. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a 40-year-old civil rights group, rightly suspects that any new version will be just as prejudicial and invites people to sign its petition.

Here's another villainous message, this time from a children's hospital in Atlanta that doesn't deserve a mention by name, a fearmongering video that wants you to believe all fat children are going to die from heart attacks in their 30s because we fatties spend our entire lives either on the couch or in the drive-thru lane. Wall-e much?

These dire threats about weight are not some sort of beneficial "tough love." They're fantasies about imaginary fat villains, not facts about reality. I don't object to them just because they're stigmatizing or "insensitive." I object to them because they're bad for people, whatever we weigh. Here's how:

People somehow get the idea that nutrition and exercise are only worthwhile if they cause weight loss. (Could it be from all those, "Fatties gonna die! Don't be a lazy glutton!" campaigns?) If nutrition and exercise don't produce weight loss, why bother with them? They're not doing you any good, goes the popular thinking. Yet good nutrition and physical activity improve health and longevity for people of all sizes, regardless of weight change.

Here's what I consider the even better news, because it means our bodily survival mechanisms are working perfectly: Eating less and exercising more do not turn fat people into thin people. They don't cause much weight loss at all in the long term. Studies repeatedly show that people who lose weight by dieting, making lifestyle changes, and so on will regain the weight they lose; some will gain back more. As Health at Every Size expert Linda Bacon points out in her book, the weight difference between people who exercise regularly and people who don't is only about five to 10 pounds.

So why do we hear incessantly that you have to eat well and exercise to lose weight? Why do we hear all the time that you have to lose weight to be healthy and live a long life? Neither of these threats are true. Most crucially, neither of these threats inspires very many people to eat well and exercise for very long, much less for their whole lives.

How many eat-less/exercise-more New Year's resolutions last until the next Jan. 1? This is not a failure of willpower, it's a failed worldview that judges health by weight. When we value nutrition and exercise as ways to lose weight, we set ourselves up for adopting health-enhancing habits in brief spurts that are soon abandoned for being frustrating or futile and definitely un-fun.

If we care about children's health (not to mention happiness or feelings of hope for a good life), the last thing we would do is tell them to eat well and exercise to lose weight. If we care about children -- thin children and fat children -- we could tell them they're so very awesome that they deserve to enjoy eating and exercising because those activities feel good and are good for them, for life ... whatever they happen to weigh.

This is the heart of the Health at Every Size approach: pleasure, not punishment. Take pleasure in food and in fitness. Don't use them as punishment for having an allegedly bad body. Love your body now, because you're awesome! Celebrate weight diversity in people of all sizes, because the cookie cutter that marketers use to make us feel bad so we'll buy stuff is not the definition of beauty or attraction. Trust your body enough to eat and exercise for enjoyment and health. If you're enjoying eating well and exercising, you're way more likely to do it for life and way more likely to enjoy lifelong health benefits.

The problem is not childhood "obesity." The problem is weight prejudice. It leads us to spread hateful messages and to believe hateful messages. The problem is that weight-hate is also bad for our health. It puts us at war with our bodies, with food, and with fitness, when we could be at peace on all these fronts. It makes two-thirds of us unwelcome in society and the other third nervous about gaining weight and thereby losing all hope of respect. The problem is that when fat children go to school or to an amusement park, when they read Harry Potter or listen to first lady Michelle Obama, they are told that the world would be a better place if they didn't exist. The problem is not our health -- we are taller, heavier, healthier, and living longer than ever, and there is no data to support claims that our current weight spells our future doom. The problem is not the fat villain we're supposed to enjoy hating, even when it's ourselves.

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Marilyn Wann

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