The Obesity Crisis, Shame Tactics, and Veganism

The latest statistics are sobering: in 2009-2010, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the U.S. was 69 percent among adults aged 20 years and up and 32 percent among children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years. While there is a clear need for effective, evidence-based approaches to reversing these trends, the widespread use of shame tactics aimed at solving the “obesity crisis” is startling. Recent campaigns from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Disney have featured unflattering images of obese adults, children, and avatars designed to shock the public into taking action. Yet they have all drawn intense criticism from researchers, activists, bloggers, and the general public for sinking to the level of shaming, stigmatizing, and bullying to convey their anti-obesity messages.

Given these recent events, I was saddened and angered to learn of a recent billboard campaign in Albany, New York sponsored by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which displays images of an obese man’s stomach paired with the message “your abs on cheese,” as well as an obese woman with “your thighs on cheese.” PCRM has been a tireless advocate for plant-based diets in carrying out its mission to “promote preventive medicine through innovative programs” and “encourage higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.” As a vegan myself, I have long admired their work in reforming federal nutrition policy, supporting alternatives to animal testing, and bringing research on the benefits of plant-based eating to the masses through Vegetarian Starter Kits and the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart. While a diet rich in saturated fat and cholesterol has been linked to increased weight gain and a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes, using shame tactics to persuade the local school board to cut down on dairy products served in school lunches seems misguided at best.

We at the UNC Eating Disorders Program strive to promote media awareness and healthy messages about body size and shape, and we will continue to join forces with like-minded individuals and organizations in denouncing campaigns that run counter to this objective. As we come off a successful National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, please help keep the momentum going throughout the year by joining the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Media Watchdog program and becoming an advocate for a more responsible media.

By: Susan Kleiman