Oh Disney, I am soooooooo deeply disappointed in you!
DisneyWorld/Land, dubbed the happiest place on earth… But only if you’re not an overweight child.
A recent exhibit at the Epcot Center misses the mark entirety in its shoddy attempt to jump on the bandwagon of “fighting childhood obesity”. Habitat Heroes opened in the beginning of February and incited a stir in the activism and education communities. The exhibit, working in tandem with an interactive online game was housed in a two-building “playspace” where fictional hosts Callie Stenics and Will Power orchestrate a litany of activities that destroy villains so aptly named Sweet Tooth, Lead Bottom, Glutton and The Snacker. As of February 23, the physical exhibit on site had been shutdown in response to the public outcry which speaks to the power of collective voices and activism. (Note: the physical Exhibit was shutdown on the 25th of February, while just yesterday on the 28th the online companion was eliminated and both are rumored to be in a “reworking” stage)
Some of the games within the exhibit include food fights where participants obliterate junk food (to defeat the “villain” by the same name) with healthy ammunition of broccoli and apples, junk food is obliterated. The tour ends with a spot light illuminated dance that induces heart rate and overthrow Lead Bottom.
Seriously Disney ?!
How can an international family icon create something that plays directly into the hands of harmful media messages and reinforces damaging stereotypes in society? This sort of approach sanctions fat shaming in the classrooms and continues to reinforce negative connotations and weight stigmatization. It straight up uses these insensitively crafted characters to vilify behaviors and basically blame kids for being overweight.
Shaming does not work in any capacity. I am doubly alarmed and disgusted by this irresponsible approach to such a sensitive subject.
What happened to being gentle with our children?
Where is the care and concern for the psychological well-being and overall mental health that is inevitably in jeopardy for adolescents struggling against society’s stigmas?
When did fat shaming become a veritable approach to activism?
The answer is that it is not. It hurts substantially more than it could ever help.
We need to give children and families the resources to reinforce healthy lifestyles, NOT shame them for the way they look.
There is increased likelihood that children struggling with low self esteem issues and size/appearance based bullying are MORE likely to engage in harmful behavior patterns, many of which include using food to cope and assuage that inner pain. This doesn’t lend itself singularly to overeating, but to myriad of other ways that children develop unhealthy relationships with food and demonizing their bodies. Telling children that they need to be most concerned with their size and not overall health is criminal. This encourages kids to do whatever is necessary to shrink their size, including the development of unhealthy behaviors that can very easily segue into full-blown, life threatening eating disorders. In the past several years children seeking treatment for eating disorders has risen 112%!!! That is no longer just a startling statistic, but a national epidemic and cause for concern. Society encourages a sort of pathology surrounding food and gaining weight, but to reinforce this into youngsters when their minds are so malleable and associations so poignant sets the stage for a life-long disconnection from their bodies.
Let’s not forget that 90% of a dependent’s food choices are on the shoulders of the parents. Not to mention the fact that the cheapest and most affordable foods are often the least healthy. Shouldn’t there be some sort of government sanctioned movement to make nutrient rich, whole foods less costly and available? How did the approach of shaming children become even a viable avenue for proposed change? Not that shaming is appropriate for any sort of behavior modification, but I’d put the parents on the chopping block before I even attempted to put the onus on a child.
Jennifer Fickley-Baker, the Social Media Manager at Disney holds that the aim is to help “children of all ages to learn healthy lifestyle habits and become more active.” Because the only reason a child is overweight is because they are lazy, right? And if you’re not fitting into society’s one-size-fits all standard of health then you certainly must be a slovenly glutton, right? There needs to be more of a social awareness raised about the fact that you CANNOT determine one’s physical, emotional or mental health strictly based on cursory, appearance based observations. Disney’s exhibits make NO mention of the myriad of complex issues and factors that scientists have elucidated as being at work in determining the weight of children AND adults that scientists have elucidated as being at work. Clearly, Walt’s predecessors did not put their unlimited financial resources to work in research, or they would have surely come across the revered HAES – Health At Every Size.
The online companion seems to have its own bundle of bad approaches. The cast of characters on the interwebs expands to include new names and faces like Drama Queen, Ice Cappuccino and Insecura. Their debuts intend on combating other harmful behaviors. I am probably most enraged by the fact that they have decided to portray insecurity as a “bad habit” rather than a sensitive response to an environment or, more specifically an incidental and natural part of being human. I certainly can tell you in all my years of battling with this demon, it has NEVER been helpful to have someone highlight it as a liability and then attempt to shame me into change.
When I thought there was not another marketing miss that could be as horrifying or brutally inhumane as the Georgia campaign ‘Strong4Life’, I had no idea I would stand corrected by the makers of Mickey Mouse and spectacular magical palace that I had always revered as the youngsters version of the Taj Mahal.
I was originally alerted to this atrocity via the blog Weighty Matters where founder/family doc, Yoni Freedhoff, sounded off about this unfortunate approach. He says: “So thanks for being so helpful Disney — I mean if your kid’s not overweight or obese, here’s to Disney reinforcing society’s most hateful negative obesity stereotyping, and if they are overweight or obese — what kid doesn’t want to be made to feel like a personal failure while on a Disney family vacation?”
This is simply not an effective manner by which to encourage healthy lifestyle changes in families and children, by shaming them and reinforcing the stereotypes that contribute to a fat phobic society.
We don’t need the beloved and iconic powers-to-be at Disney sending this malicious message, telling kids that society reveres will power, self control and thinness. This method contributes to cruelty, emboldens bullies and almost encourages and endorses size shaming. It contributes to the humiliation of those who do not fit into the small box publicly painted as “health”. Yes, there are health complications and risks associated with being overweight, but shaming and blaming is not the way to beget change and is certainly no way to encourage healthy eating behaviors or contribute to positive body image. Our culture provides us limitless reasons to feel badly about ourselves and promotes size conformity as a default, without the help of any fat-shaming campaigns. All these things do is contribute to the problem, reinforce negative associations and further support a future relationship with food and one’s body that is rife with painful antagonism.
Children need positive role models and reinforcement in these crucial formative years, NOT another replica of a reason to feel shameful about their bodies or behaviors. These abhorrent avatars do not work.
Here is to hoping that Disney is revamping its approach to such a sensitive subject and recognizing it as a human rights issue. I remain optimistic that it will own its epic representation in the kidmmunity and realize that this endows it with the responsibility to protect and empower our children at any size and every age. There are enough harmful media message and stereotypes to contend with and the answer to health will never be achieved by blaming and shaming our youth. We need to empower them to love honor and respect themselves and combat these harmful media messages. We need to offer them real tools to make healthy lifestyle choices that foster the development of a positive relationship with their bodies, food and themselves.