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Dear Virgie white swimsuit header

Dear Virgie,

The school I teach at, which is 95 percent Latino, had a nice community-based Back to School Night tonight. There were arts & crafts for kiddos, food, activities, etc, but there was also this giant inflatable “Coke can” that I took a photo of, which has “diabetes” written on it. It really rubbed me the wrong way, and it didn’t seem educational at all, although they were claiming that health education was the point of it. What’s your take on it?


Dear Virgie coke can diabetes

Dear Friend:

Ugh. This image brought up so many complex thoughts.

What makes me dissatisfied with this enormous can of Coke at your Back to School Night is the way it enforces some public health tactics I not only dislike, but believe to be ineffective in creating community empowerment or actual change:

First, these kinds of messages encourage people to see things like diabetes as an individual issue rather than a bigger-picture issue. This Coke can was placed at a Back to School Night, meaning it was designed to change individual parents’ and perhaps individual children’s behavior.

Yes, it is true that individuals can make decisions that affect whether or not they will get diabetes, but there are a ton of genetic and environmental factors (like, duh, the ongoing stress of racism) that determine someone’s predisposition for diabetes. Those genetic and environmental factors are a bigger part of the picture than our individual decision around drinking soda. This leads to the next problem with this tactic:

Second, these kinds of messages inadvertently lead to victim-blaming. When we socially construct things as individual problems we set the stage to create opportunities for victim-blaming. Right now we culturally treat fatness like it’s an individual “problem” and this leads to people policing and ostracizing fat people. When we foist the responsibility of avoiding diabetes entirely onto individuals, I think it creates a decreased sense of compassion, complexity and community/national accountability.

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Third, these kinds of messages encourage anxiety and fear, not empowerment. Growing up Mexican, I got the diabetes talk every day. I still get the diabetes talk every time I talk to my grandma. I can resolutely tell you that this only leads to fear and anxiety because — not-so-new newsflash — fear tactics in public health campaigns typically don’t meaningfully alter behavior.

Fourth, these kinds of messages inadvertently further stigmatize women of color who are mothers. In the U.S., women are still disproportionally responsible for feeding children, meaning that messages that target eating habits are targeting women. This connects to my first and second points. Messages that target communities of color and immigrant communities, I think, increase stress for an already stressed population and further create opportunities for people outside the targeted community to imagine the community as “bad” or “dumb” = more harm than good.

Related: When Bullying Follows You Home: Growing Up Chubby and Filipino

Finally, I think we as a culture conceptualize most things in a flattened way. We cannot look at soda consumption in a vacuum. As we saw in the case of Detroit, in some places soda is safer to drink than tap water. I know for people who are broke, soda can be the cheapest option (and the cheapest option when you’re broke is the only option). My mom constantly tells me about how she uses soda to feel better because she has depression. And I know for me growing up, my grandma packed soda in my lunch because she knew I loved it and she wanted to give me everything I wanted in life, but she had a third-grade education and few resources, so soda was an accessible way for her to tell me “you deserve everything you want,” which was fuckin’ rad for an old-school lady.

Further, I am consistently flabbergasted by the money that gets thrown behind soda campaigns targeted at individuals, absent a larger conversation about structural poverty/racism and the way that the U.S. subsidizes corn and therefore subsidizes the high-fructose corn syrup that seems to be the impetus behind these campaigns (p.s. those corn subsidies hurt third-world farmers = just more racism).

I’m not trying to defend Coca-Cola (that’s not the point of this post, btw), but focusing on coke is — in my opinion — like pointing out that there’s a crooked picture frame in a house that’s about to fall apart. I know for the well-meaning folks who thought up this campaign, they probably thought of this as a small step in the right direction, and I don’t want to belittle that. I just think it’s important to stop asking stressed communities to do even more, and in so doing we can make room to widen the scope of this issue.

At the end of the day, I think your sense that something was off about this messaging was spot on.

Hope this helps!



Virgie EBX

Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.