How to Motivate Change Without the Stigma
Do anti-obesity advertisements effectively promote healthy lifestyles, or do they merely stigmatize ill-fated children who have grown up in unhealthy households? One recent news article, published by NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr, argues the latter.
Lohr’s argument centers around the “Stop Sugarcoating It, Georgia” ad campaign, which uses scare tactics similar to those found in anti-smoking and anti-methamphetamine advertisements, in an attempt to reverse the growing trend of childhood obesity in a state with “the second highest number of obese kids in the country.” Lohr claims that while the message of healthy living is an important one, the tactics being used may provide more harm than good, as they disparage the same children who are already made to feel inadequate through the perpetual teasing and bullying they endure both at school and on the playground.
In addition to being detrimental to a child’s self-esteem, these advertisements may actually promote the exact behavior that they are trying to prevent, as Georgia State University professor Rodney Lyn states, “we know that stigmatization leads to lower self-esteem, potential depression. We know that kids will engage in physical activity less because they feel like they’re going to be embarrassed. So there are all these other negative effects.” So the question becomes, why does society continue to employ stigma as a motivator for change, when positive reinforcement has proven itself a much more effective tool?
In relation to class discussion, this is very much the same question brought up by the Free to Be story, “Ladies First,” where a young girl is eaten by a group of tigers due to her inability to recognize the negative consequences of her condescending and stuck-up attitude. “Ladies First,” similarly to Georgia’s anti-obesity campaign, focuses on a child’s negative quality, rather than a positive one, which may lead to many children thinking that they are inherently flawed in some way, when in reality, the problem may be caused more directly by the child receiving poor parenting than by the child itself. This potentially damaging effect of children viewing themselves as flawed may be the reason that “this ‘bad’ female subject [was] somewhat unusual for the Free to Be series, which [tended] to celebrate conventional images of bold and adventurous girls rather than to condemn conventional ones” (235). But if that is the case, it would seem to be in everyone’s best interest to focus solely on children’s positive attributes, rather than negative ones. That way, an obese or overly bratty child will be more inclined to change, as they won’t see themselves as holistically flawed individuals, but rather they will be able to isolate the problem, making change seem far more attainable.