Scared skinny?

This fantastic little tidbit titled "Scare yourself skinny" is almost inconceivably wrong. The blog is about pretty much what it sounds like: how anti-obesity campaigners can use fear to scare people thin. The idea comes from the use of warning labels on cigarette packets. Before the labels, cigarettes were cool and hip. Now, they're cancer sticks. The labels and warnings may very well have prevented me from starting smoking, but I'm not sure they would have been enough to get me to quit. It didn't work that way with my eating disorder, and I don't think it would work that way for smoking or weight.

Still, it's a popular tactic, as evidenced by the recent New York City Health Department campaign in favor of calorie counts on menus and subway posters titled "Pouring on the Pounds." (h/t VoiceinRecovery for pointing out the posters to me several weeks ago). You can even adopt a five pound piece of pet fat to help remind you of that icky icky fat you just don't want to have (all for only $149.95 plus shipping!). I personal prefer the little fuzzy adipose cell at Giant Microbes, and have adopted one myself to remind myself that fat isn't all bad.

There is the minor detail that fat molecules line all of our cells, and help conduct nerve impulses. It makes our hair and nails shiny and healthy. It provides padding against injury and daily wear and tear. It helps keep us warm. It's not all that bad.*

The author of the blog post cited several studies that showed how fear tactics can work to change behavior. And if you were just considering the short-term, I would tend to agree. But even I, Anxiety Freak Extraordinaire, become inured to risk and fear. Serious ED symptoms rapidly stopped frightening me. It was just the way things were. Fear tends not to change things long-term.

There's the small fact that people aren't fat just because they're not scared enough of it. Our culture is awash in this fear. I can't believe that people aren't aware of it. Then there's the fact that some people aren't fat because they drink too much Coke and too little "water, seltzer, or low-fat milk." Some people are just fat, and no amount of fear is going to make them lose weight.

Weight has an environmental element, true. So does height. Where, then, are the articles titled "Scare yourself tall"? Shouldn't you be scared of your decreased salary? Shouldn't you?

(EDITED TO ADD: I just found a great piece in Slate tackling the politics of the "soda tax" called The Growing Ambitions of the Food Police.)

*Yes, I'm trying to convince myself of this, too.


Jocko said...

Well, fear can be one method but in the long run if they are really trying to campaign for people to get skinnier they need to think of lots of different strategies. A lot of smokers I know just laugh at warnings on cigarette boxes.

FuguSushi said...

What IS true, is people tend to order less food when they know the estimated amount of calories in the foods they're ordering.

Sometimes people don't actually intend to eat 2500 calories in one sitting. They just eat that much because they don't realize that entree at Chili's is that fattening. Of course, you're not going to deter people from ordering supersized fries if they so choose, but at least now people can make an informed choice. Even though I'm an anorexic trying to stop my behavior (doing pretty good for the last week although slightly anxious), I would appreciate knowing how many calories are in my milkshake before I down it. I don't have to limit myself to 500 calories a day, but if possible I would like to not eat 1500 in one sitting too.

I don't think you can scare people into being thin. I think you need to change the environment in which we live to get people to slim down, and that's something urban planners (such as myself) are working on. said...

I agree that you can't scare people into losing weight.

However, when you have an eating disorder, you CAN be scared into staying unhealthy out of FEAR of gaining weight.

So how do you reconcile both of these sentences?

I'm just curious. While I believe you cannot scare people into losing weight, maybe it's not because of something inherently unmotivating in fear. Maybe it's something else. Fear, for me, has been motivating at times. No, it has not been long lasting, long-term, sustaining motivation but, enough short-term motivation can eventually bring you to a place where you're willing to keep on the healthy path for different motivated reasons. For example, I was first scared into eating more when I was afraid my roommates would call my parents again. That didn't last. Eventually I returned to my old ways. Then I was scared into eating more because the study abroad program I was in threatened to send me home. That also didn't last. Then I was scared into eating more because I was a teacher and, if I didn't maintain some energy, my students would suffer. Even that didn't perfectly last. Then I got scared into eating more so that I didn't have to increase therapy even more and end up in a program. That was the most recent. Now, though, I feel that I have found a motivation in me that is more unwavering. A motivation that comes internally - and is, therefore, more lasting, I think.

If enough things can scare a person into eating more healthily, then, perhaps, eventually, after being at that healthy state, they'll start to be able to be motivated in a more sustainable, real, lasting way.

Does anyone follow that? I'm just thinking out loud.

Amy said...

Pet fat? Hmmm. I'll bet it's more complacent than the pet cat I already have...

Libby said...

I think the thing that bothers me most about an ad campaign like this is that, while fatness can be caused by too many calories, it's not always the reason. It's (one of) the same reason(s) I also object to TV shows like, "OMG the WORLD's FATTEST MAN STARTS DATING." They always find that guy who weighs 500lbs and eats 20,000 calories a day. They never find the guy who was simply "blessed" with a slow metabolism... or who has schizophrenia and takes meds that bring his weight up (though I kind of think that 500lbs might be a little drastic for a medication reaction... but that's not the point here). It's like they're telling only part of the story.

Now... maybe that bothers me so much because I'm in that population who doesn't overeat but is still "blessed" with... umm... let's say, "abundance" (which I realize is probably more significant to me than to anyone else... and because of my history and brain chemistry probably seems much more abundant to me than to anyone else, too). Maybe it's just anger at being lumped in with the "bad" soda guzzlers and the "slovenly" pizza eaters. (How's that for a little black-and-white thinking for ya?!) "They" always say that the majority of folks who are fat are in fact overeaters (can I tell you how many times people have suggested I attend OA meetings?!) and that "everyone" feels sorry for the few people out there who have thyroid conditions and the like. But the more I meet people, the more I talk about things like this, and the more I take the horns on my own health, I just think that "they" are plain wrong.

btw... I kind of want "My Pet Fat" so I can draw a face on it and dress it up with little hats and things... But I agree... the microbe is way cuter.

Anonymous said...

My university has, as of this year, started putting nutrition labels on a lot of the food around campus. NOT helpful!

Honestly, I think the smoking/eating comparison is, well, shoddy. A person can abstain from smoking all together. A person can't just QUITE eating. And eating - even "junk" food - provides us w/ nutrition that we need. Obviously many people eat in ways that are not nutritionally sound, but I don't think these posters are going to change that.

I wonder if there would be a way to gauge the effectiveness of campaigns like this. Do they do more to help the public health than they do harm to the e.d. community? Does that even enter the debate? Is this helpful at all given the fact that nutrition education for most people is so inaccessible?

Eating With Others said...

Everything that has been said here is good and I agree, but there is a place for nutrional education. Or something like that. We do tend to have a more sedatary life now and an abundance of very calorie dense food. This can lead those without ED's (and with them) into unhealthy eating. I often wonder if I had had more more than 1 day in health class talking about food if my life would have been different. True I should have educated myself better but let's face it after college, the activty level went from good to almost a full stop but the eating didn't adjust, in fact it increased. Some lable's might have helped or at least made me think a little.

Yes haveing parents with "disordered eating" didn't help at all, but I would still like to see more emphasis on what healthy eating really is taught or at least offered more on campus. Please keep in mind I was in the class of 91 they may have started a lot of better stuff since then.

Carrie Arnold said...


You raise a point, and I do agree that calorie information should be available, but not necessarily printed on the menu. What I have a problem with is using these numbers to "guilt" people into ordering differently. That is, to me, the true power of those numbers: that little voice saying you shouldn't have that.

People ordering less food because they're all freaked out isn't a huge improvement to me. I do believe strongly in having lots of fresh food available to people in all locations and walks of life, and that's just not happening in a lot of areas. But fixing that problem isn't about fear.


I think some of the "fear hierarchy" is related to which came first. People with AN also have the biology aspect at play in the fear of food and weight gain--my own neurochemistry only reinforced this fear. I'm battling uphill to reassure myself that eating X won't magically make me fat. It works much the same way with drug/alcohol addictions. The physical dependence and that immediate, gnawing fear (death is in the future, eating/not exercising/not snorting dope is NOW) tends to overrule most of the thoughts about the future. When I am deep in the AN, I don't give a crap about potential damage to my body. I don't. That's a maybe, a down the road.

When I was fighting my OCD, I was torn between two fears: that I would get/give deadly germs and that someone would find out I was totally nuts. How well I was doing with symptoms did depend, in part, on which of those fears was winning out. My brain just grabs onto random things and obsesses about them. If I was born ten years later, might my phobia have focused on high fructose corn syrup instead of fat and calories? Who knows.

I intend to retain a certain healthy amount of fear for the anorexia- I don't think that's stupid. Fear of relapse can be a powerful motivator. The problem with eating disorders is that malnutrition really distorts your thinking. Now that I'm doing better eating and weight wise, I can develop that sense of healthy fear.

Tess said...

I just wanted to point out that Susan Carnell (the blog you link to) is much more neutral on whether fear tactics are positive or will work than you make her out to be. She ends up saying
"The truth is that the posters will probably affect each person differently."

She's not heavily promoting this tactic; she's just reviewing it.

Jay said...

Carrie, I liked what you wrote, and I've shared it with my readers. Thanks for the mention of mypetfat as well.

For myself I'm testing out a whole new way to be much more aware and balanced with how I'm "thinking+ eating" which I've called "The Smart Phone Diet."

It's really not as much of a diet, as much as using a tool that most of us have with us 24/7 as a way to be more mindful.

All the best!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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