Being a kid is hard. Being a fat kid is harder. I should know, I used to be one. The incessant teasing leads to a sense of shame that seems impossible to overcome. I try to avoid spending much time thinking about being a larger kid, because, frankly, it sucked. But I am always reminded when back to school season comes around.
Advertisements during this season have become significantly more diverse throughout the years, but one group remains missing: fat children.
Since the 1976-1980 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the percentage of children classified as obese has more than tripled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 13.9% of 2- to 5-year-olds and 18.4% of 6- to 11-year-olds are labeled as obese.
Why then, are larger-bodied children underrepresented in advertisements for back to school?
Writer Marie Southard Ospina from CafeMom penned a potential reason after hearing about backlash U.K. retailer Next received after they decided to make plus-size clothes for kids. “The recent news that U.K. retailer Next makes plus-size clothing for kids has been met with abject disdain from many people all over the internet. What a shock: The world hates fat kids just as much as it hates fat adults.”
Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to this. Just a few weeks ago, the advertising agency that was casting a Milka brand chocolate commercial specifically asked for “no overweight children.” Before this announcement, Mondelēz International, the parent company of Milka, said that their Cadbury brand would start manufacturing more chocolate bars under 100 calories in a bid to “tackle childhood obesity.” The irony here is rich.
Although advertisers might be concerned that featuring larger-bodied children in commercials will “encourage obesity,” choosing not to represent these children in back to school advertisements further reinforces weight stigma and bias, which actually affects children of all sizes.
Healthychildren.org, a website from the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that children who experience social stigma due to their size can end up with lower self-esteem, which can sometimes translate into poorer academic performance and loneliness. The constant loneliness can become ingrained into the child until “He can become sad and clinically depressed and withdraw into himself. In an ironic twist, some children who are overweight might seek emotional comfort in food, adding even more calories to their plates at the same time that their pediatricians and parents are urging them to eat less.”
And according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (AAND), “81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.” And the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination notes, “Young girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents.”
I find it even more challenging that WW (the company formerly known as Weight Watchers) decided to launch their weight-loss app for children and teens right in the heart of back to school season. Similar to how the New York Times published a very unpopular article on getting fit and losing weight right in the heart of wedding season, WW is reinforcing to kids that if their bodies don’t look a certain way, they shouldn’t really feel proud to go back to the classroom. It’s reminiscent of subliminal messages such as, don’t go after that job, or that relationship or don’t start living life until you have a smaller-sized body.
WW’s launch didn’t seem to go over too well. The fact they called it Kurbo, which comes across as a shorthand for curbing your appetite, didn’t help their case.
Looking back on my time at Walmart.com, when I managed the strategy around our back to school campaigns, I never had the opportunity to actually select the models who appeared in our advertisements. I now regret that I never provided feedback at the time. Hindsight is 20/20.
The business community has a collective responsibility to reflect what children actually look like, not what we think they should look like. Those who cast videos or photoshoots for commercials should remember that big kids deserve a chance to be seen and accepted. As the famous adage goes: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Let’s make sure to include children of all sizes, so they can see themselves as confident and successful. An advertisement like that could be the singular thing that helps them have the confidence to get through the day and could make a world of difference in how they perceive and treat themselves today and in the future.