Disney's Wonderful World of Fat Shaming

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.

Going through the gallery, some big fat bodies stand out and naturally the endeavor wants you to connect fat bodies with the kind of flaws fat people are normally accused of. The Glutton is a fat hot dog salesman who can't stop eating his own product and wears a donut as a pocket square(!). I mean, I know they are characitures, but how is it that even sensible on their terms? Wouldn't he just eat the donut instead of using it a bit of accoutrement? Next, we have Lead Bottom, the resident couch potato looking like one of the humans from Wall-E in a wrestling outfit. His bio tells us that he failed to pursue his dreams of dance because he was too fat and fell into wrestling instead. Its almost ironic given that fat people can totally dance and that these days, professional wrestling is actually pretty hostile towards fat bodies. His bio also contains the memorable line "blubbery loves company" which I so want on a t-shirt. Finally, we have our female fatty, Snacker. She washed out from the Tooth Fairy Academy and slathers all her food in butter. Would you believe me if I said her voice in the video game was more than a little reminiscent of Paula Deen? Her super power is summoning fatty food with her magic wand, which sounds kinda awesome to me. She's also a good example of why these slick character designs are counterproductive because I think Snacker looks totally bad-ass, like some awesome femme fairy godmother.

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.


Molly Ren said...

I was sitting here eating a delicious cinnamon pastry while reading this, and now I can't finish it... because I am *pissed*. Disney's definitely getting an angry letter!

Abigail Nussey said...

I mentioned this on another site, but it's interesting (and not surprising) to note that the Habit Heroes hosts, Will Power and Callie Stenics are real, flesh and blood people who are allowed to exist without the Disney animation/software puppet-strings, unlike the individuals (uh, I mean personifications of habits!) being demonized.

Demonization is the name of the game, quite literally: these aren't people, they're devils who need to be vanquished. And people who have these 'habits' or the bodies associated with them by hate propaganda like Habit Heroes are in some way possessed by these demons.

Moral panic, meet your showpiece. What a travesty.

Brian said...

Ragen at Dances With Fat also wrote about Habit Heroes and its well worth reading... http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/deeply-disappointed-in-disney/

MaggleBish said...

The one that bothers me the most is "The Prescriptor". Let's teach children to be drones and just do what they're told! Oh, wait, we already teach them that... maybe that's part of the problem.

When I was young, the focus was more on being a good person, which had nothing to do w/not eating fast food, exercising, listening to your doctor, or being affected by stress. On the topic of stress, I wouldn't consider that a "bad habit", isn't it just something that happens? Is this even something that a lot of children need to be worried about? The creator of these characters is lazy and should be fired. If you're going to make a game about bad habits, use the opportunity to teach children how to be good, contributing members of society who are polite to others, etc. Take out the violence and make the game's rewards based on positives.

Brian said...

Yeah, the whole negative reinforcement thing is scary because I thought we had gotten past that as a way to teach children what with it not working at anything other than shaming people. Positive reinforcement is a way to support productive messages about health to all children and without stigmatizing those who don't comply. Sadly, I think its clear that the shaming and stigmatization here is a feature, not a bug.

Brian said...

Someone on Tumblr reminded me that I forgot the fat stigmatization in the Insomnia personification where one of the reasons to get sleep is because those who don't eat more. Its really just chock full of fat shaming.

Paul Ernsberger said...

Also Nicotina is a pretty blonde supermodel who is exaggeratedly slender --Disney is glamorizing smoking for appearance-conscious teen girls: http://cdn.habitheroes.com/img/missions/nicotina.jpg

Brian said...

For Tumblr types, this article is posted on Tumblr with a photoset of the bad habits...

wriggles said...

Quick, someone call Paula Deen! I'm not sure anyone comes out of this ill conceived campaign well.

The sad slender "Insecura" character is a particular low. And taking digs at the Goth/Emo contingent?

Dizzney should get up to speed, they're quite respectable nowadays. Heck, even people who don't warm up enough? What are they on?

"Fungus" perhaps, which might explain that inexplicable inclusion. (I was actually wondering if that's some tie-in with a food corp).

And "Pierre Pressure" as in don't surrender to it, as if that's not the whole point of this bilge.

Then there's "Bruiser" the bully, surely that's their HERO?

Tim said...

Given this description and the review you linked to, the one thing I would hope for is that this will be the huge flop it deserves to be. It sounds heavily "preachy," and if there's one thing kids can spot a mile away it's preachiness. And they don't like it. If they don't like broccoli and carrots, shooting them at a fat caricature isn't going to make them.

I won't see it first hand, because as far as I'm concerned, Disney is just evil, for a variety of reasons. Not in the same category of corporate-entity evil as, say, Monsanto, but bad enough.

Twistie said...

This whole thing just makes my brain hurt and my heart ache.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe Disney is evil, just misguided in this case. I also don't believe that Walt would ever have condoned a program that hurt and belittled kids. I think this program will deservedly fail.

Anonymous said...

God that all looks awful.

Its almost ironic given that fat people can totally dance and that these days, professional wrestling is actually pretty hostile towards fat bodies.

So true! I was stunned when WWE recently debuted Brodus Clay as "the Funkasaurus", a complete throwback to the old-school fat-dudes-who-can-seriously-move type of wrestler. The norm is much more towards either very-lean/very-toned or very-huge/very-muscled guys.

Now I'm going to go console myself with vids of Bam Bam Bigelow.

Anonymous said...

Snacker looks like a nice lady to me. She seems fun. Snacking stigmatization FAIL.

Hannah said...

Speaking as someone who was always taller and a little chubbier than my friends at school, going to an attraction such as this in a place like Disney (safe place with beautiful princesses and charming princes, anyone?) would have severely knocked my confidence. As it was, peer pressure and other influences caused eating disorders and depression...corporations need to think more about the image they are projecting into the minds of easily-influenced children before they start fat-shaming under the disguise of beating 'bad' habits (anyone reminded of the adorable 'hunger' from the weight watchers adverts?)

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is weird and upsetting coming from Disney, given how comparatively fat-friendly their theme parks are in contrast with Six Flags and Universal. Ironically, this new exhibit is situated directly across from the only ride in all of WDW that is a tight fit for me, so I guess it will be easy to avoid!

Ashley said...

I have been very upset with Disney ever since the line in Mother Knows Best from Tangled where Rapunzel's "mother" tells her that she's "gettin' kinda chubby" when it is clear that Rapunzel is not chubby in the least. EVERY time I hear that line I cringe. Why would they put that in a song? It makes me so sad.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lisa said...

@Ashley: That line is actually a nod to the original Rapunzel story, where Rapunzel's stepmother finds out the prince has been visiting her when Rapunzel says her dress is getting tighter, inadvertently revealing that she's pregnant.

Doesn't change how sickening this is, though.

Anonymous said...

You'll be glad to know that Disney has closed this horrid attraction "until further notice:"


Seriously, what in the hell were they thinking when they decided to partner up with BCBS (who insures ME BTW) that mocking fat people, especially children, was a good thing? Not to mention, BCBS, at least the type of coverage I have, doesn't pay for WLS or other "obesity treatments," so this was a total fail on their part.

Anonymous said...

Looks like lifeonfats has already beaten me here with the news, but yeah, apparently they have already closed it due to guest complaints.

thinkaboutit said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


There are many many ways to positively reinforce the concept of healthy eating and exercise without negatively stigmatizing being overweight. Stigmatization of *any* medical condition is only going to cause more problems in the long run. People will use other means to cope with the problem that will cause other problems or they will feel like failures and refuse to ask for help or treatment at all.

For those that might not believe me, look at the history of medical treatment. AIDS was stigmatized and thousands upon thousands of people have died here in the US that might have lived longer with the proper treatment. And if the condition was less stigmatized, the medications might just have come down in price and be covered more fairly by insurance. Let's not even go into the millions that have died in Africa because people won't even admit the have the disease.

We see the same pattern in mental illness. People try to cover up their symptoms using drugs and alcohol rather than seeking proper treatment, due either to fear or ignorance, both of which tie back to the stigma of having a mental illness.

When it comes to being overweight, most insurances don't cover nutritionists, or medical weight loss programs. So just how are those of us who are overweight supposed to pay for all of this? I do my best to eat healthy...when I can afford it. Living paycheck to paycheck sometimes means that my finances don't quite allow for the highest quality foods. But I have had the idea of eating healthy reinforced in a positive way from my family and my doctors, so I am trying.

But no one in my life tells me I am fat and stays a part of my life if I can help it.

Crystal B. said...

I love how you just remove any opinions that do not align with yours, it really makes for a good discussion. Why not leave them there and respond? What's the point of having a comments section if you only allow people who agree with you to comment?

I happened upon your blog because a friend of mine is very involved in the topic. Having been heavily involved in sports and dance for as long as I can remember, I feel that I carry a certain bias when it comes to weight, and I would like to learn more about the other side of the coin to open my mind. Because of this, I am trying to read whatever I can find about the topic, and would love to talk to someone about it. I hesitate to put forth any thoughts or questions here, however, because I will apparently be labeled a fat shamer and my comment will simply be removed.
How do you expect to change any minds if you reject open dialogue?

Brian said...

I remove opinions that are hostile and disrespectful. I have no obligation to play host to people insulting me or other commenters. The point of a comments section is not so that people can can constantly put me and my readers on the defensive and continually demand that we justify ourselves to the satisfaction of persons who do not show us any respect.

If you truly want to explore something with an open mind, you don't approach someone and demand that they justify themselves to you. A great many people have come to fat activism communities who had their own biases and were able to interact without being judgmental. Most of them probably didn't stake out a self-fulfilling prophecy from the start, though.

Anonymous said...

I really cannot believe this... I just lost so much respect for Disney/Pixar :-(

I'm keeping my son far far away from this!

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