Warning: long post ahead. If you hadn’t yet seen the new billboard ads that PCRM has put up on billboards in Albany, NY, there: now you’ve seen them.
My first reaction when I saw these ads was shock at how ugly they are. I don’t mean that the bodies pictured are ugly: I mean that using these bodies to prove a point about plant based diet is ugly. My next reaction was embarrassment that this kind of advertising will now be publicly associated with the vegan message. And my final (and lasting) response was disappointment. I am a longtime fan of PCRM: I think they’ve done extraordinary things to champion and protect vegan medical students, to share a truthful message about the health benefits of plant based diet, and to protect the lives of animals. But this latest campaign is, in my opinion, a serious lapse of judgment.
Let me state some facts: I am the first person to say that a plant-based, whole foods diet is one of the surest ways to improve health and protect against chronic diseases. I also believe that a diet high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium is directly linked to high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart disease, obesity, Type II Diabetes, and countless other conditions, along with their attendant pain and suffering. And finally, I believe that diets rich in meat, cheese, and dairy are also rich in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium—to say nothing of the harm they do to innocent animals, the environment, and to us. So I’m absolutely on board with sharing a message that declares, “Look, America. Diets rich in animal fats are very likely to raise your BMI and put you at risk for countless diseases.” But I believe that there are ways to share this message without denigrating and vilifying overweight people, which is precisely what PCRM is doing in these ads.
Since the ads debuted, the primary reaction among consumers/viewers has been one of disgust and hurt. It’s tempting to say that this is simply because people don’t want to admit that eating animal foods is unhealthy or wrong. But the critiques—including those from vegans like me—have been a lot more thoughtful than that. No one disagrees with the basic premise that eating too much cheese—a food that is rich in sodium and cholesterol—is likely to lead to weight gain. But is it fair to say that cheese alone is a guarantee of obesity? And more importantly, is it right to brandish overweight bodies as a way of proving a point?
I don’t think so. This kind of advertising only validates the unnecessary self-loathing and shame that millions of overweight people struggle with already. It compounds the overly reductive idea that skinny=healthy. And it tacitly suggests that a thin body is a virtuous body. Beyond all this, research suggests that fat-shaming is not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive; this article, published in Time magazine last may, cited a study conducted at Yale University, which showcased images of overweight people who were also portrayed as being slovenly or lazy. The images had a devastating effect, heightening anti-fat bias and producing guilt. The authors of the study claimed that “those who view negative media images may themselves internalize harmful weight-based stereotypes, further worsening their mental health. That may trigger overeating, inactivity and weight gain.”
Of course, we all know this intuitively already: extreme guilt about food choices triggers a sense of hopelessness or rebelliousness, which leads to overeating, which leads to weight gain. But now we have some evidence to that effect. Isn’t it therefore all the more shocking that a non-profit devoted to health-promotion would target overweight audiences this way?
Beyond all this, it’s important to point out how embarrassingly simplistic these ads are. I believe that the role of genetics in health/wellness has been drastically exaggerated, and that everyday lifestyle choices have an enormous role in turning genes on and off, and thus preventing disease. But I’m also well aware of the fact that, while diet and lifestyle are supremely important, they are not the whole story: the field of epigenetics, which is in part devoted to studying how genes for obesity can be passed from parent to offspring before the offspring has a chance to develop dietary patterns of his or her own, is becoming far more important, and for good reason. In this day and age, some children are being born into the obesity epidemic with a genetic predisposition to be overweight, and it’s not yet clear how completely lifestyle choices might be able to deactivate their predisposition.
Additionally, numerous factors, from thyroid dysfunction to stress to mental health, might increase a risk of weight gain, in spite of a person’s best attempts to eat healthfully. And on top of all of this, there are still many cases of people who eat healthy, plant-based diets, and maintain a higher BMI in spite of it. This may not be the norm, but it’s a fact. Anti-weight dialogs ignore the simple truth that, while BMI is very often an accurate measure of health and disease protection, it is not always an accurate measure.
As for cheese: well, I don’t think I need to point out that there are a good many people who eat a whole lot of cheese and remain slim in spite of it. That doesn’t mean that the cheese isn’t packed with cholesterol and salt, nor that its production isn’t likely to have caused a tremendous amount of suffering. But “cheese=obese” is a laughably simplistic assertion. Aren’t we capable of using more precise, truthful language? Cheese is high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium. Diets that are overly high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium are linked to weight gain and risk for disease. It’s the cholesterol, fat, and salt that are to blame here—claiming that cheese alone is the issue isn’t accurate enough, and it’s actually likely to mislead Americans, who are already prone to vilifying specific foods and food groups (carbs, fats, bread) when they should be giving more to the nuances of nutrition science.
But wait, you’re thinking. What about, say, cigarettes? It’s not the cigarette that kills you, it’s the nicotine and tar and tobacco. Didn’t the anti-smoking ads prove that sometimes you need to shock in order to effect change?
That’s what Neil Barnard has argued, in his defense of the campaign. But there’s a big difference from the cigarette ads I remember from childhood, and these cheese ads. Those ads, which typically pictured triple bypass surgeries or other hospital procedures, didn’t seek to shame the bodies of the people who had smoked. They showed the ultimate outcome of too much tobacco use, which is the likelihood of a medical procedure. And if the PCRM ads had shown an operating room or surgical bed, along with an injunction against diets high in saturated fat, I’d have been all for them. I’m no shrinking violet myself when it comes to messaging.
But they didn’t. They showed sensationalized photos of a woman grasping her overweight thighs, along with a message about cheese. They used heavy people as the target of their campaign, rather than warning all Americans of all sizes—including the many thin Americans who overconsume animal foods—that saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium are unhealthy. They capitalized on people’s guilt, shame, and fear of being overweight to prove a point. And in spite of Barnard’s repeated assertions that food lobbies are to blame for the obesity crisis, this campaign seems far more intent on targeting and blaming individuals. In so doing, it extends far too little compassion to people who are uneducated about their food decisions. Why not educate first, rather than shaming?
The Time article speaks for itself: this is not the way to effect change. Part of why I feel uneasy about the language of “milk/sugar/meat is no better than heroin/crack/cocaine” is that we human beings have attached enough misery, shame, and guilt to our food choices. And compounding that guilt, by telling us all that our pastries and cheese are exactly the same as heroin, will not advance our message. It may reach some people, but only at the expense of a good many others who find the language accusatory, exaggerated, and triggering.
Instead, let’s focus on using honest language, honest facts, and honest statistics. Plenty of vegan physicians are doing just that: educating the public with simple, dispassionate, and courageous research. Will that be enough to effect wholesale change? I don’t know. But I have to believe it will be more effective than anger and insult.
It’s funny: these ads reminded me a lot of PETA’s “save the whales” campaign:
Which, in addition to being sexist and showcasing a terrible anti-fat bias, did a lot to turn even staunch AR supporters against PETA, an organization that has done groundbreaking and lasting work for animals in other arenas. Compare these ads, and the PCRM ones, to, Mercy For Animals’ billboards and TV ads, which seek to ask provocative questions, rather than shame and embarrass the viewer.
I think these ads, though tough to watch (check out the TV spots), embody best spirit of courageous, intelligent, and thought-provoking activism. They may be shocking, but they don’t resort to accusatory and personal sentiments to achieve their goals.
In order to effect change, activists sometimes need to push the envelope. I get that, and I respect it. But there are ways to do this without resorting to bullying and discriminatory language. The worst thing about sexist or fatist marketing of veganism is that pushes aside so many of the values upon which the vegan message rests: Compassion. Truthfulness. Hatred of irrational discrimination. A good many vegans—myself included—found our way to veganism intellectually because we disliked the speciesist allegation that animal lives are expendable, whereas ours are precious. So seeing discrimination employed shamelessly in vegan advertising, no matter how well intentioned, will never sit right with me.
I am certain that PCRM—an organization that has been championing animal rights through health-related messaging for over almost thirty years—can and will do better. But for now, I encourage all vegans to speak out against anti-fat bias in the marketing of plant-based diet. One of the most touching, insightful emails I ever got from a reader said the following:
I slip up so easily…it’s not so much the allure of meat/cheese that keeps me going back to the familiar foods, I think its a little bit of shame for not being thin. (A chubby vegan?! The horror! Kidding. kidding.) I am working hard to get healthy, so my progress is noted by my friends, even those who don’t know the extent of my dieting, but I feel like the second I out myself about flirting with veganism I’m going to be expected to drop a ton of weight instantly.
She also wrote,
It’s hard enough being overweight and lugging around a green juice. The eye rolling and casual comments about how “that girl will try anything” are incredibly hurtful; but, I deal with them, day in and day out. You’d think with the obesity problem in America that someone’s attempts to lose weight or get fit would be rewarded, but so often I find myself on the defensive. It’s like people look at me, see a chubby girl and assume I go home and eat fettucine alfredo, a box of cookies, and a pint of ice cream every night and wash it down with a coke. I eat raw zucchini pasta, for goodness sake!
If nothing else, I hope this email reminds us that vegans and aspiring vegans come in all shapes and forms, and that it’s dangerous to draw assumptions about a person’s willpower or habits simply from appearances. At the very least, alienating and hurting all vegans who don’t happen to have low BMIs for the sake of promoting a health conscious message is not a worthwhile form of activism. While some may claim that shock marketing of the vegan diet is effective, I think we need to tread very carefully with that line of reasoning. If we get to an “ends justify the means” place with our activism, we may very well wake up one day and find out we’ve forgotten what we stand for.
So, let’s stay true to the real message of a vegan diet, which is a compassionate message. By all means, let’s force people to consider the facts. But let’s do it without shaming, bullying, or devaluing each other.
What do you think of the PCRM ads? With pushing the envelope? How can we “sell” veganism without losing sight of our ideals?