Fat is not a video game

One criticism I’ve heard of pickup artists and their followers is that they think that girls are like a video game, and if you just use the right strategy/cheat code, you can get the woman you’re targeting to go out with you. Of course, she has her own goals and may not be interested in you at all; for example, maybe she’s not looking for a guy at all, or there are unchangeable characteristics of that guy that she will never be attracted to, or she’s unwilling to consider any guy in that particular space (e.g. the subway).

There’s a complete unwillingness to consider that the only outcomes you can get from your behavior may be 1) no effect and 2) make things worse. Or even to consider 3) partial success. Nothing but complete success will do. I don’t know if this is American optimism or ties into the desire for life to be fair or what.

This seems to be a common approach for people trying to solve a problem; they are unwilling to admit the possibility that they might not be able to solve the problem. And this might not be such a bad thing in some situations, but when the problem is “trying to get people to do things”, it IS a bad thing. It is a failure to consider that other people may have conflicting goals and have just as much right to pursue their goals as you do. It is an unrealistic assessment of your power over other people.

This fallacy is a problem for people who want to get fat people to stop being fat (whether their motives are genuine concern for everyone’s health, desire to enforce norms, or just that they don’t like looking at fat people and feel they shouldn’t have to). For the majority of fat people, the conflict isn’t that they don’t want to lose weight, it’s that they have tried, often multiple times, and were unsuccessful. That’s why weight loss is a $60 billion industry. Still, the obesity fighters go into this with the assumption that if they can just find the right encouragement/motivation/manipulation/blackmail, they can get other people to do what they want: manipulate their weight so that their BMI and/or appearance is “acceptable”.

This leads to the idea that if the current ad campaigns have not reversed BMIs to the 1960s or so, then the problem must be that the ads aren’t negative enough. Because there aren’t any other ways to change the way the ads are written. And it’s unthinkable that advertisements don’t have the power to solve obesity. Do not underestimate the power of the mighty 60-second ad! Besides, fat people watch lots of TV, right? And clearly they’re being manipulated by the fast food companies, because they’re all eating tons of fast food, right? Therefore, fat people will do exactly what the TV ads tell them!

Here’s the latest example of that thinking:

“[Marc Manley, the vice president and chief prevention officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota] says the nonprofit used to put out PSAs that were more positive, like this one encouraging people to get up and dance. But, he says, the problem of obesity in Minnesota and nationwide is so tough, they needed a new, more dramatic approach.”

This is pretty similar to how the Georgia “Don’t Sugarcoat It” campaign justified its stigmatizing ads. Embedded in these justifications is the attitude that although anti-obesity people were initially uncomfortable with more negative and more stigmatizing ads, they will be more effective.

The problem is that there isn’t any evidence that that’s the case; in fact, all the evidence I’m familiar with points in the opposite direction: stigma and negative ads lead to comfort eating and reduced intent to implement the behavior that the ad is trying to get you to do. (There’s also some interesting discussion of stigma on the Fat Chicks Rule blog here and here.) So even if you only care about reducing obesity rates, and don’t care at all about the direct effect of stigma on health, these negative ads are less effective than the positive ads, and may make people fatter.

I think this attitude also comes into play with both the rejection of Health At Every Size and the rejection of small (5-10%) amounts of weight loss. It’s not enough to improve most health outcomes and people’s self-image; only exactly equal health outcomes AND being pretty will do! (Whether you see the health outcomes with HAES as being almost as good, or equal, or better than equal, depends on what measures of health and what studies you’re looking at. Almost all studies show people with BMIs between 25 and 30 living longer than any other category, but there seems to be a straight-line correlation between BMI and knee problems.)

So, to sum up: Our feel-good “yay exercise yay veggies!” ad didn’t work? Well, it’s not possible that we don’t have the power to make a big impact on obesity rates! Let’s make some negative ads! That should do the trick! After all, there’s no possibility that we could make things worse!*

*Something else to consider: is it possible to make a health-promotion ad that doesn’t promote stigma for people who don’t want to participate in the health-promoting behavior? (As opposed to just not promoting stigma for fat people.) I’m linking to JoannaDW, whose response is a definite “No!” but I myself am just unsure.

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5 Responses to Fat is not a video game

  1. Thanks for the link.:)

    Honestly, the last question (about positive health promotion) is a tough one to answer and it’s something I want to do a blog post on sometime in the near future. I think it IS possible to promote health in a positive way. Take working the night shift. There are risks associated with working the night shift, and these have been publicized, but there is no particular stigma (at least in this culture) associated with working that shift. So there is no real damage to discussing the dangers of shift work. Also, campaigns aimed at reducing the risks of shift work aren’t necessarily trying to get people to stop working it. No one in the ads is saying that day-partial people are smarter, healthier, stronger, etc. than night-partial people. The campaigners are simply saying that, like many other neutral or positive things about life, shift works has its risks. Here are ways to mitigate those risks. Life is full of risks and every choice we make has pros and cons. There is nothing inherently damaging or prejudicial about disucssing that.

    The problem with eating and exercise campaigns is that they aren’t promoting specific behaviors aimed at specific diseases. If someone recommends that I get vaccinated for the flu, that’s a specific, fairly straightforward behavior aimed at preventing a specific disease and it’s no big deal to take five minutes out of my day at a clinic to get the shot. If a local procery store pharmacy is offering it for free with no appointment, that just makes my day even easier. Eating and lifestyle campaigns, however, require us to buy into a whole host of dubious notions that can basically be summed up as, “Everything about modern life-technology, inactivity, food, chemicals, etc-is slowly killing us by giving us all these diseases and we must return to a Simpler Time (TM).” Not only are they dubious, but they have the potential to be taken to dangerous extremes, as can be seen with obesity campaigns causing parents and schools to underfeed their children. These campaigns are also very personal as they attempt to change my body, my lifestyle, my very way of being. There are scores of articles talking about how sports make children get better grades, learn teamwork and sportsmanship, and have more stable moods. Which is basically saying that children in sports are smarter, more social, etc. Which, then, by implication, means that children who DON’T do sports, who perhaps are more interested in theatre, robotics, or some other non-physical activity, do not learn those things. In a culture that glorifies the athlete, moralizes food choices, stigmatizes weaker, less able-bodied people, poor people, and those that don’t follow the dictates of elites, and that believes it has the right to dictate the intimate details of your life, these campaigns are very, very destructive. For people to insist that we make them essentially MORE destructive by giving them a broader impact-fat and thin kids, as opposed to just fat kids-is simply not acceptable to me.

  2. That makes sense, JoannaDW–thanks for the clarification.

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