Blues, Disney anti-obesity exhibit effective? Fat chance


Jim O'Neil

If you could stand to lose 10 or 20 pounds, or maybe even more, would you want to be shamed or bullied into shedding the weight? I suspect the answer is a collective and resounding no. But that's the avenue two Blue insurers and Walt Disney World chose to take with an exhibit aimed at reducing obesity rates in the country.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield teamed up with Disney to create an exhibit, called Habit Heroes, for the gigantic company's Florida resort that would encourage kids to eat healthier foods, thereby improving their health and, not coincidentally, reducing healthcare costs that said insurers pay.

But Disney and the Blues plans closed the exhibit, in which visitors underwent interactive experiences addressing bad health-related habits, just weeks after its opening, according to Orlando Sentinel. What happened? A flood of complaints, particularly from obesity experts and related organizations, said that the exhibit was counter-productive with themes of bullying and shaming peppered throughout the messages.

Leading the charge against Disney was Yoni Freedhoff, bariatric doctor and author of the Weighty Matters blog, who wrote that the Disney-Blues exhibit vilified and dumbed down the issue of obesity, according to Ottawa Citizen. He added that tough love interventions, which the exhibit implies can solve overweight problems, haven't been proven successful.

"Our goal is to ensure that the attraction conveys a positive message about healthy lifestyles in a fun and empowering way," said Blue Cross spokesperson John Herbkersman in a Reuters article. "To work on further improving and refining the experience, the attraction is closed for the time being. We look forward to officially opening it soon."

A video of the exhibit, which to me seems like a glorified video game, shows two characters trying to recruit visitors to fight "bad habits" and "inactivity" by destroying as many empty calories as they can. The ammo? Fruits and vegetables. The target? Bad habits. The biggest villain of them all, according to the characters Will Power and Callie Stenics leading the game, is Lead Bottom. So Will and Callie invite exhibit visitors to engage in "positive peer pressure" and a dance-off with the weighty villain.

It's not hard for me to find fault in anything Disney because I don't buy into the behemoth company's general happiness campaign that's ever-present throughout its parks, movies and anything else it touches. But my issues with Disney aside, I find this exhibit particularly insulting. The intent behind it may well have been worthy and laudable, but it's implementation is most definitely flawed and faulty.

If you've ever met anyone whose health would improve if they lost some weight, you know that you can't just tell them to eat healthier and exercise some more. They know that. Sometimes that tactic simply drives them to eat more. The real problem behind our nation's obesity epidemic isn't lack of advice; it's a complicated psycho-social need for fulfillment and feelings of unworthiness. It's anxiety, insecurity and plenty other emotions that drive people to eat and not exercise. It's not because they never thought about eating broccoli instead of pizza.

I applaud the two Blues insurers for recognizing obesity as a health problem and taking steps to address it. But I hope, should they choose to reopen the exhibit in the future, that they strongly take into consideration the many criticisms they received related to the bullying and shaming method of reducing obesity. Instead, they should incorporate some compassion and understanding for obesity-related problems, as well as some proven techniques and tools to losing weight and exercising.

Walt Disney World draws enormous crowds each year, and I can only imagine how effective a thoughtful, informative and genuinely helpful obesity-related exhibit could be. I hope the Blues companies and Disney get it right next time around. Maybe then dreams of weight loss might come true. -Dina (@HealthPayer)