Call it another triumph for parent-power (and the power of all those who love kids). The protests that erupted in the wake of Disney’s Feb 3 launch of “Habit Heroes,” an exhibit at Epcot purportedly designed to combat childhood obesity, resulted yesterday in the exhibit’s (and web site's) reportedly indefinite closure. Here’s what happened: “Habit Heroes,” developed in partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield (who should’ve known better) was an interactive series of games in which kids teamed up with animated “heroes”--Will Power and Callie Stenics (get it??)--to defeat “villains” such as
And Stink Bomb who is not only fat but has bad hygiene!
Let’s pause for a minute and talk about why shaming fat kids is not just mean but ineffective as a weight-loss strategy (just in case you don’t already know): In a letter addressed to blogger Shannon Russell the director of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development explained that programs like Disney's or the controversial Strong4Life campaign in Georgia:
...carry a great risk of increasing stigma for those children who are overweight or obese. which in turn can reinforce unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating). A number of research studies over the last decade have supported this concern. For example, studies suggest that overweight children who are teased about their appearance are more likely to binge eat or use unhealthy weight-control practices, and weight-based victimization ahs been correlated with lower levels of physical activity. Not surprisingly, stigmitazation of obese individuals, particularly adolescents, poses risks to their psychological health.
Other studies show that the perception that obesity is solely a matter of personal responsibility, as opposed to understanding the complexity of contributing factors, can increase negative stereotypes of overweight people. It is important, therefore, that public messages about obesity address this complexity wherever possible.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Disney couldn't address health risks of excess weight without making fat kids cry. In movie after movie—even the supposedly “enlightened” ones such as Beauty and the Beast or Tangled---fat (or “ugly” not to mention "old & female") in the Wonderful World has been used to signal character flaws: it's shorthand for stupid, ugly, comical, asexual, evil. For instance:
Ursula from Little Mermaid
Aunt Sarah from Lady and the Tramp
The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland
Mama Odie in Princess and the Frog (not villainous, but a weird)
Ratcliffe in Pocahontas
Stromboli from Pinocchio
Smee from Peter Pan
The list goes on. So you think this company is going to approach overweight children with the care, compassion and sensitivity they deserve?
A number of bloggers have taken this on (hence the pressure to close down the exhibit). But I haven't seen anyone discussing this part: Disney seemed to be trying to have its cake and shun kids for eating it, too. Because if the company really wanted to help in the fight against childhood obesity it would stop its pimping its characters out to be plastered on tasty, empty-caloried, ultra-processed, high-sugar foods that contribute to the problem. Tell me how Will Power would react, for instance, about Disney Princess Spaghetti O’s?
Or the Disney Princess “healthy kids” Campbell’s soup, which, granted, contains 80 calories in a half cup serving (does anyone ever eat a half-cup serving?) but has virtually no nutritional value while dishing up 480 mg of sodium. Oh, and lest you forget, in tests of canned food by the Breast Cancer Fund the Disney Princess Cool Shapes, Shaped Pasta with Chicken Broth contained the second highest levels of BPA (a chemical linked to early puberty, breast cancer, prostate cancer, ADHD, type 2 diabetes and, oh yes--obesity) of any product tested.
That's not to say Disney doesn't care about children's BPA levels when it suits them, otherwise they wouldn't advertise that their sippy cups and feeding sets for toddlers are BPA-free. How messed up is that?
Then there are the "Jewel Berry" Disney Princess Pop-Tarts. Jewel Berry?
And the Princess Belle Fruit snacks which on the front promise “real fruit” but whose first two ingredients are corn syrup and sugar (that “real fruit” turns out to be apple juice puree).
Speaking of fruit, the princesses also grace containers of apple juice, a beverage whose calorie and sugar content are precisely the same as soda pop and is similarly linked to childhood obesity.
Though I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. It’s not like I’d prefer Disney to start branding more healthful fare like vegetables or fruit. Oh, wait, they already have:
Sigh. You know what I think would be really great? If the company made films in which the protagonists were themselves a healthy weight—that is, not impossibly narrow-wasted and large-breasted—and in which fat characters (girls and women in particular) were neither the subject of ridicule or disdain. Maybe one could even get the prince.