UPDATE: The exhibit and website are now "down for maintenance".
Earlier this month, Disney announced a collaboration between Blue Cross Blue Shield Florida to bring their considerable experience and expertise in marketing to children to the health insurance industry's long-standing commitment to blaming fat people for their health problems. These titans of industry will pool their talents to give fat shaming of children a brand-new re-branding. Oh, that's not what they announced, of course, but it is what they are doing.
Newly unveiled at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center is "Habit Heroes", an exhibit and online game designed to combat "bad habits" by personifying those habits and then stigmatizing those personifications. I'm guessing you are already ahead of me. 25 Pixar-inspired characters make up the "Bad Habit Gallery", a collection of low-ambition super villains content to use their powers to model socially unwelcome behavior. I'm not going to really get into the advisability of the project. This sort of negative reinforcement feels misguided in general, but especially when the negative reinforcement involves creating cool characters of the things you are supposed to be stigmatizing. (See Hungry) Never mind the broad condemnations of things like being in a bad mood are just setting kids up to fail. Everyone gets in bad moods or doesn't get enough sleep enough some of the time. Especially counterproductive is shaming kids for lacking self-esteem. You're going to make kids feel bad about themselves because they feel bad about themselves? Way to go, Disney. So, there is a lot to complain about, but as you probably deduced, what really concerns me are the fat shaming characters in the "Bad Habit Gallery".
And yes, characters. As I noted, the residents of the "Bad Habit Gallery" are all personifications of "bad" things. One is a personification of bullying (so, he's a bully), one is a personification of listening to music too loudly (a guy with headphones; they really didn't try very hard), one is a personification of sharing your personal information online (find out more when you register with http://www.habitheroes.com!). There is even a personification of eating spoiled and moldy food, which I must admit, I was not aware was so pervasive a problem.
I'm having a little fun with all of this, but that's because I can. I'm an adult and I'm encountering all of this with cool detachment. That doesn't mean the influence on children isn't insidious. These three characters are carefully designed to get children to associate fat bodies with the negative behaviors our culture associates with fat bodies. Its like a "My First Fat Shaming". The game pretty explicitly tells children to see fat bodies and think they are slothful beasts cramming themselves full of fattening treats. All of these bad habits that we know our culture links to fatness, the game does, too. This isn't about the bad habits at all. Its training children to adopt the socially dictated bigotries around fatness.
Don't think the creators didn't know what they were doing, either. Indeed, its clear from the site's video game that they created another character to shield them from criticism for making all of the anti-fat "Bad Habits" big fat fatties. They already had Snacker designed to personify eating junk food. She was even designed like a sugar plum fairy of sorts. But she doesn't eat sweats. Oh, no. They have another character for that, Sweet Tooth. She's thin and everything. Well, "shapely" is how they describe her. See, they pointed out that she's not fat. Immediately after doing so, they scold her for not being fat, too, teaching kids to rely on the visual evidence of evil fat bodies even if some evil people have disguised themselves as "shapely" while really they have high blood sugar. (Yep, diabetes shaming, too!) For gosh sakes, she's got the name Sweet Tooth instead of Snacker who's bio identifies her as a FAILED TOOTH FAIRY? How clearer can it be that this character is just an afterthought to provide some deniability for their fat shaming? Well, as I mentioned, the game makes it completely unavoidable. While all the other bad habits are encountered on their own, Sweet Tooth and Snacker are just doubled up and do the same thing. (You douse them with vegetable juice while they pelt you with donuts and cakes)
It doesn't stop there, though. Three other characters are fat in ways that specifically exploit prejudices about fat people. Stress Case is a fat opera singer. Well, former opera singer. Stress caused her to blow out her voice and destroy her career. Sounds tragic, but remember the point is how inexcusable it is to be stressed. The real take-away, though, is that she was too busy being stressed that she doesn't bother to exercise. While dressed up to be about stress, its actually just another lesson about fat people being lazy. What else do fat people do? They stink! Stinkbomb is the personification of bad hygiene. If you guessed that he's also fat, congratulations. Get Sweet Tooth to launch a cookie at you. I guess we should be relieved that he doesn't explicitly connect being fat to smelling bad. I'm pretty sure kids already "know" that, though, so they'll put two and two together. Finally, we have The Prescriptor, the personification of not doing what your doctor tells you. Hmm. Like lose weight? Again, they don't specifically connect is fatness to his fault, but its not hard to make the connection given existing social beliefs that people are fat because they are ignoring all the people telling them not to be. In a lot of ways, the construct of The Prescriptor is how a lot of trolls view fat acceptance. Just a bunch of ignorant people ignoring their doctor's orders. The fact that those orders can't really be fulfilled is meaningless.
Although the website features 25 bad habits, what I've found of the actual exhibit makes me wonder if most of the non-fat shaming ones were just filler. This site includes the preview posters for the exhibit which pretty much exclusively focus on fat shaming. The only habit we haven't already talked about is the one representing TV/internet/video game addiction although the poster renders him as a pudgy sprite instead of the robotic overload the site features. Spoiler alert? I wasn't able to finish the game due to site errors, but it wouldn't surprise me if the reveal on the interactive entertainment boogeyman was that he was just a squat guy. This review of the now open exhibit reinforces the point. No sign of the website's peer pressure or teethcare villains. It seems to just be the ones about eating and laziness. A point also made by the exhibit's focus on a gym as the hero's base. This was in the game, too, but was a minor point there. In the exhibit, its clearly a focal point.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of the program is how it teaches kids to shame their peers. All of the bad habits are defined as having a "master plan" to subject everyone to their socially stigmatized trait. While the video game that accompanies the site has you winning over the bad habits (though much that involves making mean-spirited remarks to them which seem an awful lot like the bullying that is supposed to be a bad habit), the wording on the bios just makes it out like these people are obsessed with ruining everyone around them. Got a fat friend? They want to make you fat like them so they won't feel so bad! No, really, that's what the site tells you. At best, its teaching kids to constantly pressure their friends about their supposed faults. At worst, its telling you stay away from them at all costs. Or maybe best and worst and mixed up there. Its kind of hard to differentiate between two awful outcomes intended to stigmatize kids for not meeting certain standards. Either by constant pressure or by ostracizing them.
Simply put, kids don't need this message. They already know to shame kids for not fitting in, and that is a problem. Programs like this just teach those kids they are right to do that. No fat child needs a video game to belittle them for supposedly being lazy or gluttonous. Fat children already hear that all of the time. It has nothing to do with what bad habits they may or may not have, either. The implicit connection "Habit Heroes" draws between fat characters and fat lifestyles will empower the continued abuse of fat children, both externally and internally. They'll keep being taught to feel constant anxiety about their eating and activity level. They'll keep trying to do "the right thing" only to find it doesn't make them thin, teaching them that moderation is worthless and encouraging dangerous activities. It will keep teaching fat children that they aren't right and teaching other children the same thing. Society was doing just fine on that without Disney's metaphorical weight behind it. This is the last thing the world needed.
Habit heroes represents some of the worst of our society. It relies on cheap and easy prejudice, pandering to cultural bigotries surrounding weight and morality. It bullies the disenfranchised for the benefit of the status quo. They rely on the widespread of acceptance of fat shaming and fat stigmatization to put forward a message that will be poisonous to fat children. Fat shaming needs no more corporate partners or endorsements. Fat children are constantly being told to feel awful about their bodies. Given that no safe, reliable means of weight loss exists, even for the children, this is a prescription not for good habits, but for self-hatred. Worse than that, its an endorsement of others hating fat people.
For information about contacting Walt Disney World and Epcot, please visit their site or find them on Twitter @WaltDisneyWorld. Contact information for Florida Blue can be found here or on Twitter @FLBlueCenter.