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Viewpoint 3/2: Disney's anti-obesity campaign borders on fat-shaming

We all recall fondly how, when we went on family vacations as children, the best part of the experience was going on a ride and being reminded what terrible people we were for eating junk food, watching TV or maybe being a little on the pudgy side.

Well? Wasn’t it?

On Feb. 3, Disney World’s Epcot Center unveiled its Habit Heroes attraction, an interactive exhibit in which park guests can battle bad habits like overeating in the forms of grotesque cartoon villains named Sweet Tooth, Lead Bottom and The Snacker. On paper, this must have looked like a fun, educational and positive idea, but, according to a Huffington Post article by Emma Gray, public reactions have been mixed, ranging from strong approval of Disney’s anti-obesity message to outrage at its perceived fat-shaming.

Public figures including Michelle Obama have been outspoken about the epidemic of child obesity, which, according to the CDC, has risen to 17 percent, and you can’t fault Disney for getting in on the act. Especially when it comes to reaching children, Disney might just be one of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the free world, so their support for any initiative has unrivaled potential to do either a lot of good or a lot of harm, or both.

Clearly the attraction is aimed at children, and many children are likely to take this well-intentioned exhibit completely the wrong way. Some children will see only the fact that they are being encouraged to blast away the nasty fatties and condemn their lifestyles, possibly taking it as an endorsement for bullying overweight people. Others will see that people who are chubby, like them, are disgusting villains and slobs who the pretty, skinny people are quite right to look down on, or that they are doing something evil and gross just by looking the way they do.

Obesity-shaming is a tricky topic. One side of the debate says we shouldn’t tell people it’s all right to destroy their bodies with unhealthy habits; some put it more brutally, saying people who are overweight bring it on themselves and don’t deserve empathy for their condition (which is, by the way, a legitimate medical condition). Others argue that obesity is often a genetic issue, that they know people who live perfectly healthy lifestyles and are still overweight. More importantly, though — and hopefully everyone can agree with this — people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect whatever they look like and however they came to be that way. Even if they do eat too much of the wrong foods, and whether that’s a conscious decision or a daily struggle, that is their prerogative and does not make them bad or disgusting people.

It’s one thing to be concerned about educating children and encouraging them to make healthy choices, and quite another to humiliate and belittle them under the assumption that there is something wrong with the way they look and that it is their fault they look that way. Disney’s emphasis is, of course, intended to be on making healthy choices — part of the exhibit involves blasting fatty foods with healthy foods (ironically, there’s probably a hot dog stand right next to the exhibit when you get off) — but we can’t expect young children to automatically distinguish between the habit being bad and the people being bad, or to not feel like everyone is staring at them and judging them if they happen to share Sweet Tooth’s doughy physique.

Interestingly, the Habit Heroes website was recently shut down for “maintenance.” This was supposedly to make updates and incorporate feedback from the online game’s early stages, but probably had something to do with the largely negative response. Incidentally, the website features even more “bad habits” for children to conquer, including gossiping and low self-esteem (seriously? Having low self-esteem makes you a video-game villain now? Seriously?).

We think Disney’s heart is, as ever, in the right place. But sensitivity toward the people you’re trying to reach, especially when they happen to be impressionable children, is always advisable. Disney parks should be the happiest places in the world for everyone — even kids with bad habits.

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