Let’s Move: Anti-Obesity Campaigning in America

Filled with brightly colored track suits, toothy-grinned children gamely jumping to modern  melodies broadcasting the benefits of exercise and healthy eating, and an exemplary spokeswoman at the head, the US Let’s Move anti-childhood obesity campaign is a mash-up of researched scientific facts, well-planned advice, pop culture, and the appeal of a widespread social movement. Run by First Lady Michelle Obama (known for her bulging biceps and penchant for gardening on the lawns of the White House,) this innovative campaign takes a holistic approach to changing a damaged system and helping a society in need of intervention.

Let’s Move is a grass-roots campaign– working toward large scale prevention of obesity by giving children the skills necessary to live healthy lifestyles in the early years of childhood. The campaign is aimed at both parents and children– its two-pronged purpose giving parents the facts and advice necessary to help them ensure “that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams…” while making exercise cool for a generation of youth who are prone to the modern life of the “couch  potato.”

Michelle Obama (and the Obama administration) aim to tackle childhood obesity from all sides–giving parents useful tools to create healthy home environments, making healthy foods in schools a requirement, getting children more physically active, and increasing access to affordable healthy food for all families. Ms. Obama emphasizes the importance of involving multiple levels of society as her mission statement reveals;

Everyone has a role to play in reducing childhood obesity, including parents, elected officials from all levels of government, schools, health care professionals, faith-based and community-based organizations, and private sector companies. Your involvement is key to ensuring a healthy future for our children.

 In this campaign, everyone has a stake in the fight against childhood obesity. A global problem becomes personalized. In reading the organization’s facts page, we understand the history of the issue of childhood obesity and the factors that make it so dangerous today. We are reminded of the changes in our societal norms that have contributed to ballooning waist size and spiked blood pressure– the modern ease of transportation that requires no physical effort, an increase in portion sizes, constant “screen time” with TV, computers, cell phones, and video games, and the pressures of “time poverty” in a high speed culture that often lead to unhealthy fast food and fewer home cooked meals.

The Let’s Move Campaign understands that it is lifestyle changes that must occur for progress to be made. These changes are most successful early in life, and the ultimate goal is that they become habits that will be passed on to future generations of American citizens. Though this scale of change for a society seems daunting, Let’s move works to break the process of change into easy steps–all packaged in the form of a streamlined website that is both appealing and easy to use.

(A side note: I wonder about those who don’t have access to computers- how are they being reached by this campaign? In many cases, lower income communities struggle more with the issue of obesity than those that are affluent. These communities too are less likely to have frequent access to computers. This is an example of the Digital Divide in America. How might we use this campaign to reach those on the other side?) 

Furthermore, Michelle Obama uses recognizable celebrities to help broadcast her important message. In the clips below, you’ll see how the popular recording artist and pop culture icon Beyonce has staked a claim in the Let’s Move Campaign. As her husband Barack Obama used celebrity voices in his groundbreaking 2008 campaign, Michelle understands the benefits of appealing to the vernacular of multiple generations.

Placing the Let’s Move campaign in the context of several articles regarding the global “obesity epidemic,” we are able to examine Michelle Obama’s message, ideas, and images on multiple levels.

Definitions, correlations, and causes are wide spread and largely controversial. Questions of nature vs. nurture and the cultural perceptions of “fatness” are lingering and often uncomfortable. As is revealed in the 1995 British Medical Journal article “Obesity in Britain: gluttony or sloth?” it is commonly assumed that easy and cheap access to foods high in fat and calories leads to gluttony in those who lack “self control.” Other evidence suggests that the inactivity of the modern lifestyle is just as (if not more) important than diet when it comes to obesity. The analysis in this article takes apart several cultural assumptions and several scientific studies to conclude that it is dangerous to conclude that obesity is a matter of greed. It suggests that public health strategies need to reduce the fat content in diets and avoid physical inactivity to shift trends in obesity. Though obesity is seen in modern society as something that “spreads,” (i.e. the current campaign in Ireland titled “stop the spread” seems to suggest you can “catch” obesity) its causes are complex. In  addressing the problem, holistic approaches are key. The Let’s Move campaign is successful in this regard.

From another more pessimistic perspective, John Burry writes in the medical journal of Australia that medicine and dieting and weight loss programs are not answers to the obesity problem plaguing so many nations. Instead, he bluntly suggests that (despite the fact that some have genetic factors that leave more potential to gain weight than others) it is a matter of self control and personal responsibility to maintain a weight in the healthy BMI range of 22-25. In a democracy, Burry sees this as a “personal autonomy, the right to choose one’s own way of life for oneself.” To him, weight maintenance is a matter of ethics. Those who are overweight are to be seen as having low self control. Though he admits that social elements play a role in the problem, the overarching message is that healthy BMI is an issue of “moral responsibility.” Burry asserts that doctors need to advise their patients to lose weight if they do not fall into a healthy range, and that all of those in leadership positions should maintain a healthy BMI in order to serve as positive examples to society. Disregarding the fact that “healthy” BMI fluctuates drastically depending on the individual, Burry argues that the range of 22-25 should be instated as a “virtuous mean to which we should all aspire.”

Through Burry, we see the common judgements of the “fat” made by the rest of the “normal” world. Those who are overweight are placed into stigmatized boxes before they even speak. As Samantha Murray supports in her essay “Marked as Pathological, Fat Bodies as Virtual Confessors,” our physical appearance tells our stories for us. Should we listen to Burry, we might analyze a person with a BMI of 26 as unethical and out of control. We might be less likely to trust them, or to assess them with stereotypical blinders. As a “former fat woman,” Murray tells us of dozens of doctor’s visits where bouts of the common cold or a sore throat were somehow linked by practitioners to the fact that she was overweight. It became the root cause of all of her “problems” in the face of all she came into contact with. She told tales of friends who had gone into doctor’s offices only to be told they couldn’t be seen until they lost some weight and learned to “respect themselves.” Burry’s assessment and the stories told by Samantha Murray expose the cruelty that comes with obesity. We ostracize those who are overweight–making them into the “other” and the “abnormal” despite the fact that nearly 50% of women in the US now fit that category.

image from blog.sinthetik.com

At first I did not want to see the Let’s Move campaign as conforming to this cruel analysis of obesity as an issue of simple self control. I support what Ms. Obama’s work is doing– attacking the issue by empowering consumers, encouraging physical activity, and enacting policy reform.   And yet, in reading criticisms of the program, I see how it might be interpreted as fitting Murray’s “bodies as virtual confessors” more than I originally believed.

In a 2011 article written by the Black Women’s Lifestyle Guide Madame Noirit is argued:

 Creating an initiative that portrays obesity in a negative light puts obese children in a position to develop an unhealthy body image.Several studies have shown that ridiculed obese children often evolve into depressed and unproductive adults, so until weight acceptance instead of loss is promoted, obesity will continue to increase…the White House should create another initiative that addresses the mental needs of obese children.  Focusing the spotlight on children who are constantly on display may help them lose weight, but it also forces them to lose something that will benefit them as much as good health – confidence.

Written by a publication that aims to represent a population (African American) defined in research (and on the facts page of Let’s Move on) as at higher risk for obesity, this criticism holds weight. Though agree that it is potentially problematic to blatantly “target” obese children and to cast them in a negative light, I’m not sure the Let’s Move campaign actually does this (and I also think that to some extent those who are overweight do need to realize that they are “unhealthy”.) The way I interpret Let’s Move, I think that Ms. Obama’s emphasis on early prevention is a way to combat the damaging implications of poor body image. She works to change lifestyles for children and families across the board–obese and “normal” alike. She paints the problem as one that is systemic, and does not shift the blame to the individual. However, she does urge some personal responsibility–offering easy to follow fitness and nutrition plans in order to motivate the sort of “ethics” hinted at by Burry.

Conservative criticisms of the Let’s Move campaign focus on ideas of the “nanny state.” They draw on the common argument that Michelle Obamas tactics rely too much on government and essentially “tell people what to do.” Though these concerns are common in the individualistic United States, I think that government intervention is necessary when it comes to this issue (and many others currently up for debate.) We are afraid of control, but if we don’t find a way to come together to combat the unhealthy lifestyle that plagues our country we will be left to face disastrous consequences. I believe that the Let’s Move campaign exercises a balance between individual, community, and government action. Just as the 2005 Irish report on the Obesity Policy Challenges suggests promoting health through empowerment at multiple levels (public, private, and personal,) the Let’s Move campaign takes varied perspectives and levels of expertise into account in order to create a successful approach to a pervasive issue.

 Something to think about: Beyond official campaigns and public service announcements, what power does the reality TV and media infatuation with weight loss hold over the public’s perception of obesity? Is it a motivating factor, or a dangerous catalyst for eating disorders? In an LA Times article titled “The Pros and Cons of Reality TV’s Approach to Weight Loss”  the deep complexities of questions like these begin to unravel. For each individual, exposure to the idea of  “weight loss” or “obesity” varies dramatically. Like millions of others, I have watched hours of teenagers transformed on screen in MTVs “I Used to Be Fat,” listened to Jillian Michaels (infamous trainer on “The Biggest Loser”) scream at me as I channeled a desire for a toned body and sweated along to her workout videos, and come close to falling into the pressures to lose unhealthy amounts of weight that come with being a competitive female cross country runner. My body image and perception of “normal” and “fat” and “unhealthy” have been shaped by everything from family life with a bunch of obsessive exercisers, thousands of TV ads, the numbers stitched in the waistbands of jeans, and academic articles read for class. Beyond campaigns that address large scale change and shifting cultural mindsets (like Let’s Move,) should we also regulate the media on TV? Should we get rid of the advertisements for fast food? Make sure there are certain qualifications for “weight loss shows” to make them as healthy as possible? Change the way health classes are taught in elementary schools? Or is this exhibiting too much of the “control” Americans worry about constantly? How do we give the tools for “healthy” lifestyles without imposing on rights of free speech, free market, and families?

This entry was posted in Sociology SP635 at NUI Galway: The Abnormal., Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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