Digression: come together

Okay, you know what?  I am going to talk about the ad that pissed me off, because I saw it again today.

It was a Kaiser Permanente ad, on the side of a bus heading down Market Street.  I think that was the biggest surprise, because Kaiser’s ads are almost always innocuous and cheery.  It was an articulated bus, with the accordion middle, and the ad was spread cheekily on either side: a headless male torso, heavily overweight, with his stomach bulging over the too-small waistband of his jeans, straining fruitlessly to button the fly across the two halves of the bus.  Caption? “COME TOGETHER.”

“Kaiser Permanente.  Thrive.”

See, here’s the thing that gets me.  I understand that overweight and obesity are real medical issues, especially in the US.  It makes sense that a company in the business of providing medical care to an increasingly heavy population would want to encourage prospective patients to view weight maintenance as part of staying healthy.  It makes sense that they would take out advertisements as part of that strategy.  I don’t begrudge them that.

But really?  Did it have to be another headless fatty?  Was there nothing else?

When journalists and pundits and politicians and, yes, advertisers, are talking about obesity as a public health issue, they’re picturing this kind of thing: the headless, faceless, voiceless, shapeless human inner tube who’s outgrown his pants at a laughable speed.  They don’t acknowledge the people living that reality every day.  They don’t mention that medical issues can stem from weight gain (or loss, for that matter) at just about any size.  They certainly never point to people like me, whose bodies aren’t striking or grotesque enough to make a good story.

There are people, real people, who struggle daily to achieve or maintain a healthy weight, and people for whom a healthy weight is not the tight-muscled slenderness we are encouraged to strive for.  The medical care providers at Kaiser Permanente surely encounter a rich spectrum of these people.  They could advertise for their real patients.  But it’s easier to make a cheap joke.

I do not look like the man in that ad.  When it comes to weight–what I carry and how I carry it–I’m on the bare upper bound of normal.  Yet I have had more medical intervention on behalf of my weight than most people I know.  Most days these days I’m all right with that.  It’s a hard fight to get there, but I’m all right with it.

But then I see something like this ad, and I remember that I don’t exist.  Only the headless fatties exist.  And they need to get treatment right away.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Digression: come together

  1. Veronika

    This is a wonderful post, and I agree with you about 120% – I don’t look like an anti-obesity ad either, but probably in the same vicinity as you, and most people looking at me never realise that I live with a stricter diet than many athletes, and have for years.
    A good anecdote I’d like to share is about a gorgeous Norwegian friend of mine, who’s had normal metabolism (darn her!) and always looked great on a “sensible diet”. She was recently prescribed a medication for an unrelated condition, a side effect of which is insulin resistance. Despite eating as she had before and working out as before, she gained ~10kg in 1.5 months. Yes, that’s what we live with. But no, we, fighting tooth and nail for our weight, don’t exist. Only the headless fatties who are probably fat because they eat too much junk, do.

  2. Olivia

    My mother was considered a ‘headless fatty’ until she received surgery about two years ago…and to this day she is still receiving aftercare with nutrition and additional surgeries. She is a REAL patient.

    The minor weight issues we have now don’t encourage the same copious amounts of cash flow that gastric bypass, lap-band, week-long hospital stays, home nurses, special foods and vitamins, new clothes, and prescription painkillers do. My mother’s healthcare and surgeries have been anything but a cheap joke.

    You and I are fortunate to be healthy that our demographic doesn’t require specialized advertising, but if you need that sort of attention to feel like you matter in the healthcare community because you are too healthy, maybe you should see a doctor.

    This ad wasn’t for you. Be thankful for that.

    • I appreciate what you’re saying. Rereading this post, I think I came across as trivializing the experiences of people like your mom, and I’m sorry. That was not my intent at all.

      Your comment actually underscores the point I was (ineptly) trying to make. Your mother is no more a “headless fatty” than I am–she is a real person, with real medical issues. Having the medical establishment reduce her experiences to a ha-ha-funny image of a faceless torso is cruel and flippant.

      Why not show a person of the exact same size as the man in that ad, but with their face in full view? Why not show that person chopping carrots, or playing wiffle ball with their kids, or talking to a Kaiser doctor? Why not show them being active participants in their own health, instead of poking fun at how they look in a pair of pants? That would be an image I could identify with, even though it’s not someone who looks exactly like me.

      You are absolutely right that your mother’s healthcare is not a cheap joke. I think ads like this one are trying to turn it into one, and I’m tired of seeing that happen.

  3. Olivia

    Speaking strictly from an advertising side, the reason they don’t show a face is so the viewer can easily see themselves dealing with that issue. If they showed a person’s face in a thirty second spot the mind set would go from “I’m overweight” to “He is overweight”. Yes, this appeals to our vanity rather than health but sometimes I feel one doesn’t exist without the other.

    I personally have a hard time viewing the motivation behind healthcare being about health. It’s about money…pandering to a person’s vanity is the quickest way to bring in money.

    Thank you for clarifying your points.

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