The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) sponsored two new billboards in Albany, NY, warning residents that cheese makes you fat in what is possibly most irresponsible way ever. The first features an obese man’s disembodied torso and the words, “Your abs on cheese.” The second features an obese woman’s butt and thighs and the words, “Your thighs on cheese.” The images make a very clear statement: fat people are disgusting.
The PCRM advocates for a vegan diet. The aim of this campaign is to get Albany residents to reduce their cheese intake, as cheese is a common source of saturated fat and, according to the PRCM, a major contributor to obesity in the United States. In Albany, home to several dairy farms, 63 percent of adults are obese. This is higher than the statewide obesity level of 59 percent. Obesity prevention is a valid cause, to be sure, but at what cost to other health issues?
According to their website, the PCRM is “a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.” For an organization so concerned with ethical standards, the PCRM has sunk pretty low with this offensive and damaging campaign. In the jargon of health communication ethics, the PCRM have committed a common and classic misstep: the failure to consider the unintended consequences of their message.
Just like a single food item (in this case, cheese) is not responsible for the entire obesity epidemic, obesity is not the only serious health problem facing Americans. We are also struggling with our body image and self-esteem as we cope with the barrage of photoshopped and unrealistic “ideal bodies” in the media. The National Eating Disorders Association states that “in the United States, as many as 10 million women and 1 million men are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder.”
In the medical hegemony, physical health tends to outrank mental health in “importance.” But the line between physical and mental health issues is not always clear, especially with the confluence of obesity, body image disturbance, eating disorders, and self-esteem. The PRCM is wearing blinders to these interrelated health issues in their dogmatic pursuit of a singular, isolated objective.
Physicians are taught to “do no harm.” The PRCM needs to understand that insensitive words and pictures are absolutely harmful to our health. There are better ways to educate and motivate people to make healthier food choices; ethical health campaigns do not sacrifice one health issue to promote another.
Leah Berkenwald is a graduate student of Health Communication at Emerson College, in collaboration with the Tufts University School of Medicine, and holds a MA in American Studies from the University of Nottingham. She is currently designing a social marketing campaign on body image for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also works as the Online Communications Specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and blogs at talkinreckless.com.
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LarryW — January 24, 2012
If an individual prefers to be fat or obese, let them, it's their right to eat what and how much they want. However, as a taxpayer, I do not want to be asked to pay any medical bills they might incur because of their eating habits.
Ricky — January 24, 2012
Damn! How about putting a warming on those pics? Now I have to bleach my eyes. Other than that, I agree with LarryW.
nmlop — January 24, 2012
I'm vegan, so I'm about as far as you can get from pro-cheese, but even I can see that these ads are misleading and gross. I'm also in a position to know a lot of vegans - by definition people who don't eat cheese! - who are fat anyway. And also perfectly healthy! And guess what - lots of people who eat cheese and are thin anyway. Why, it's almost as if we couldn't judge how people eat or live or are healthy just by looking at them!
AyeBee — January 24, 2012
Yeah Larry! While we're at it, I don't want to be asked to pay for your prostate care because I don't have one. I also don't want to pay for pregnant women or babies or children because I don't have any. I don't need glasses, so I don't want vision to be covered. I don't want to pay for anyone with lung cancer, HIV, emphysema, high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes. Actually, screw it. I only care about me and I don't need anyone- So I'm going to live on my own private island where I won't use anything made or sold by other people, won't use services provided by others (some of whom who may or may not be fat, or diabetic, or have children. I am self- sustaining! Problem solved.
Anonymous — January 24, 2012
My understanding (based on conversations with a PCRM staff member several years ago) is that the organization's advocacy of a vegan diet is motivated principally by concern for animal rights.
Knowing that and seeing this ad, I wonder if they decided to take a page from PETA's playbook and go for the attention-getting image at the expense of any other consideration.
pduggie — January 24, 2012
Are there studies that show media that makes fat seem shameful is causally connected to anorexia and bulemia?
There were attempts to show that violent images and video games cause violent behavior, or that pornographic imagery causes sexual misbehavior, but those studies have been witheringly criticized. Wondering about the status of other studies.
Umlud — January 24, 2012
... such as...what? Yes, it's very good to point out the fault in these ads, but this ending line is merely a throwaway. It would be nice to - instead of having "it can be done in a better way" as the throwaway line at the end of such a piece - actually seal the deal and propose alternatives. Or, if you don't have an alternative that is feasible and demonstrated to work (or could be tried out), then leave out that line, since it is effectively meaningless in a contextual analysis.
alweeson — January 24, 2012
Check your biases here:
"Obesity prevention is a
valid cause, to be sure, but at what cost to other health issues?"
There is nothing "sure" about the need to prevent obesity. Rather, there is a moral panic and a lot of bad information demonizing fat.
MissPrism — January 24, 2012
You did notice that the very last post on this blog counted obesity along with infant mortality, incarceration, drug addiction and homicide among the Bad, Very Bad things that happen in countries with high income inequality. That strikes me as a teensy bit shame-y.
Elena — January 24, 2012
Well, I can only suppose that Ms. Berkenwald finds ads depicting lung or throat cancer in smokers equally offending and tasteless.
I love cheese, but I'd rather have a bit of manchego, roncari, gouda or caşcaval fumat than slather tasteless, processed cheese product on everything *shrug*
April — January 24, 2012
For the record, I'm another vegan who thinks this ad is AWFUL. I'm going to write them a letter....fat-shaming is wrong.
Wondering — January 24, 2012
The increase of obesity in the US has a multitude of reasons and is really complex. This constant obsession over "calories in - calories out" simplifies things too far and makes the individual responsible for all the things that are wrong with the North American food system and environment in general. Poverty, food deserts, stress, lack of time, farm subsidies of things like corn, dairy, and meat, but not of fruits and vegetables, poor city planning, pollution, genetics, the list goes on! Few of these things can be overcome by individuals, but some how they are responsible for overcoming the effects.
There is even research that shows that being exposed to pollution can make you obese, even if you consume the perfect diet.
We're still studying to determine whether obesity can be caused by certain viruses:
What it boils down to blaming and shaming individuals for this "epidemic" is ridiculous without a general overhaul of North American lifestyles, government priorities, and our environment.
But I'm not holding my breath.
Abigail Nussey — January 24, 2012
The statistics in this article are wrong. They're counting BOTH overweight AND obese. There are usually many more overweight people than obese people.
Note the rates here: http://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/prevention/obesity/county/newyorkstate.htm
Kat — January 24, 2012
What I find interesting ... but in no way surprising... about this and most other fat-shaming: The correlation between poverty and obesity, thus the connection between high costs for healthy unprocessed fruit and vegetables and things like e.g. fresh fish and shrimps and low costs for heavily processed foods (partially due to subsidies of huge companies, as shown in "Food Inc." for the corn industry) is not referenced at all. That annoys the hell out of me. It's like the abortion debate: People are interested in yelling at women walking to a clinic but not in the wider issues like sex education, contraception, poverty and men who don't pay child support and don't actually raise children, just impregnate women.
Blix — January 24, 2012
I'm assuming this is a [horrible] parody of "Your brain on drugs"...? They must pay well to get people to pose for this. Either that or exploiting people that need money.
Eco Retro Jewelry — January 24, 2012
Why bother with fat shaming at all? Trust me, every overweight person is ACUTELY aware
that they are fat and that they are deemed unattractive by society. We see it and here it everywhere, all the time. If
it were that easy to lose weight who would willingly subject themselves
to that kind of constant, grinding, daily psychological pain? Fat shaming doesn't work people so give it up already! And on the subject of attractiveness, I
keep seeing fat people who are wanted and loved and are chosen to be
spouses and parents to children. How can that be if fat people are so
Anonymous — January 24, 2012
The only thing billboards, such as these, do is to stigmatize people and set them up for weight cycling. Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven stated in a recent interview, “The real reality is that significant, sustainable weight loss is not achievable for most people.” She adds, “We know that the most that we can really expect people to lose and keep off over time from conventional weight loss programs is about 10% of body weight.”
“Of course, some people lose more than that, but the vast majority regains that weight within one to five years,” she says.
Studies show that dieting, even that considered “naturalistic”, among young people lead to weight cycling [Naturalistic weight reduction efforts predicted weight gain and onset of obesity in adolescent girls; http://ebn.bmj.com/content/3/3/88.full]
There is an evidence-based compassionate alternative to conventional dieting: Health At Every Size®. For more information on Health At Every Size, you can find a general explanation on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_at_Every_Size) or find in-depth research-based information in the book Health At Every Size - The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Dr. Linda Bacon (http://www.lindabacon.org/HAESbook/).
Anonymous — January 24, 2012
Children's Healthcare Atlanta, a pediatric hospital in Atlanta is sponsoring a similar ad campaign, except in this case the focus is on childhood obesity and shocking parents into taking responsibility. Unfortunately the ads feature the children themselves and are displayed in places where children will almost certainly see them.
Anon — January 24, 2012
You can contact PCRM here: email@example.com. I support them for their work against animal testing, but this ad campaign is giving me second thoughts about whether this is the right organization to send my donations to.
calmly — January 24, 2012
There is a chain of chicken wing restaurants in DFW, TX called Pluckers. Here is their main billboard: http://www.pluckers.com/images/upload/BodyByPluckersWebsiteImage.jpg
Very similar visuals, very different messages.
Jenjennijennifer — January 24, 2012
And by the way, compulsive eating is also an eating disorder.
Guest — January 24, 2012
I think it is an effective campaign and there's not really anything wrong with the ads.
Patrick — January 25, 2012
Okay, I will be the first to say can't we stop with the damned fat shaming? The fact that it's ineffective aside, I'd like to disagree with a couple of the author's comments.
1. The number of anorexic people are dwarfed by the number of obese people. Diabetes is the number 6 killer in America. Number 1 is heart disease, and diabetes also causes a great number of these cardiac problems. So yeah, advertisers will be more likely to focus on the majority rather than a small minority (11 million in America isn't quite small, but compared to diabetics...) I may not agree with it, but I'd like people to know where they're coming from.
2. Physician's aren't really taught to do no harm. Every invasive life-saving or experimental procedure causes harm. We're taught to weigh the harm we cause against the good.
3. I don't really have a three, I just wanted to say that groups like this annoy the shit out of me. But we can't dismiss opposing arguments without at least considering their intentions.
Moudou — January 25, 2012
I feel like stroking that guy's belly. Also, I quite like grabbing my flesh too. Just thought I'd let you know.
New Obesity Prevention Campaign Rife with Fat-Shaming « Talkin' Reckless — January 25, 2012
[...] piece was up on Sociological Images [...]
standswithagist — January 25, 2012
Fat PEOPLE are not disgusting and should not be shamed like this. People are not their weight, they are not just their body parts, they are not to be made to feel less than human.
Having said that, obesity as a disease is different. Adipose - especially visceral (i.e., "belly fat") - is an indicator of poor health and so in itself IS repulsive: humans have disgust as an evolutionary response as a defense against toxicity/disease. The "fit and fat" movement is misleading, even though skinny ≠ fit. "Fat" isn't appearance, the tissue has active metabolic properties (it is an "endocrine organ") - some of which are beneficial - secretes inflammatory substances that are bad for the body, and also increases the risk for other diseases.
Focus on the fat itself, as a health issue. Respect the whole human being, who cannot be "disgusting" without reducing their humanity.
eeka — January 25, 2012
Yes, this ad sucks, but the lack of scientific knowledge about nutrition and weight by physicians is more widespread than just this. Most physicians haven't taken a nutrition course. Health insurance companies encourage things like weight loss competitions in the workplace rather than encouraging healthy and active choices.
In the mental health field, we're taught to never encourage weight loss per se, even in people for whom extreme weight is causing problems. We encourage people to increase their activity and to be mindful of eating for nutrition rather than other reasons. Most physicians though have little training in nutrition or mental health and don't see it as a problem to encourage "weight loss" based on weight on a scale rather than encouraging someone to improve cholesterol or stamina or something that actually is affecting health.
I recently encountered a gastroenterologist who saw a new patient, did only an interview regarding symptoms, then recommended weight loss based just on seeing the person's physique without bloodwork or inquiry around lifestyle. This patient had a history of severe anorexia and purging, all of which was in the records. When I requested them and read through them, I saw the first page listing the hospitalizations etc. related to the eating disorders, then the second page that recommended weight loss and no further workup. This person, fortunately, went and got a second opinion from another GI doc, who found intestinal damage of the type that often happens from rapid weight loss and inconsistent nutrition, and recommended eating on a regular basis, staying active and healthy, and not attempting to purposely lose weight.
Anonymous — January 27, 2012
Those pictures are horrible and dehumanizing on many levels.
Jdowd — January 29, 2012
i agree with the essay and most comments...but, when advertisers continually link their unhealthy products with healthy lifestyles (see any use of "extreme") shouldn't someone counter that. For example, anti-Meth ads used the physical effects of the drug to successfully turn young people away from it. Now something like soda is not meth, but it does rot teeth, is linked to diabetes and obesity etc. Would an add campaign showing the true effects of drinking soda (i.e. it doesn't make you a snowboarder) be OK?
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Body Shaming Fails Vegans and Vegan Advocacy | The Vegan RD — April 1, 2012
[...] couple of months ago, I was among several dietitians who voiced concern to PCRM about their Your Abs on Cheese campaign. Based on the thoughtful feedback I received, I felt confident that this body shaming [...]
Anonymous — April 2, 2012
I'm vegan and I want to dissociate myself from these advertisements. They're nothing to do with me. I think I am slightly overweight for my height, but generally in good physical health. I have been vegan for 20 years. I don't eat dairy products because I don't think it is good for humans to ensure calves are pregnant and then take their calves away (usually to be slaughtered) just so we can have a product which we don't need. I am also concerned about a possible link between dairy products and breast cancer. I do my best not to judge people by their size or outward appearance in any way.
Brian O'Neill — April 2, 2012
Make people more nuts about their appearance. Hasn't this superficial culture done enough damage without this group of doctors adding fuel to the fire of paranoia about what we look like. This type of ad is akin to some of the stupider PETA adds which drive people away rather than attract them. It is terribly difficult for some people to adopt changes in their eating habits and the more support they are given the better it is for them and the animals they aren't eating. If it's harshness and reality you desire to persuade people to adopt a vegan diet, I would opt for promoting the viewing of "Farm to Fridge" from Mercy for Animals (I have zero connection to them). This 12 minute video just lays out the brutality and ugliness of factory farming which produces nearly all the meat that people eat. I think seeing this helps more than shaming people. Shaming may only add to the anxiety of the age.
Chris — April 18, 2012
Fat people are unhealthy and gross looking. Just sayin'...
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