On a rainy, cold, dark and dreary day two weeks ago in London a team of people met to discuss how to end the marketing of diets and weight loss products around kids. It wasn’t a high profile meeting endorsed by celebrities or featuring #gifted goodie bags and a who’s who of Instagram influencers, but then no one said creating change was glamorous.
When I launched the #FreeFromDiets campaign back in the summer I had no idea how it would go down. It started with a few angry rants on Instagram Stories about diet club reps handing out leaflets at various school gates up and down the country, and then it snowballed into a fully fledged campaign with a petition and a video and a website and a team of ambassadors and a campaign manager.
Every week I get DM after DM after DM from parents all over the UK telling me stories of weight loss brands using schools and kids’ clubs as a recruitment ground for new members.
Aggressive marketing techniques include handing out leaflets in school book bags to take home to parents, hanging huge banners on school gates, putting up posters in kids’ club changing rooms. I even heard from one mum who was shocked to find a rep for a big diet brand dressed up as the Easter Bunny in her local park, handing out balloons and leaflets enticing parents to join her local club.
It seems it’s gone unchallenged for so long that it’s become normalised, a part of every day life for so many.
So while the rates of pre-teens getting treated for anorexia doubles in a decade, the number of mental health issues associated with poor body image rises and many children literally skip school altogether because of low self-esteem linked to how they feel in their body… the big diet brands quietly rumble on, using the very places children should be safest from messaging around weight loss and perfect body ideals as prime marketing locations for new members.
Mums are big business – and never mind if the kids see the ads, many brands offer free membership for kids too! Get the whole family through the door in one go and triple your wins! Everyone’s happy (apart from the kids who go on to develop eating disorders and the mums who hate themselves after regaining the weight, and the children who don’t raise their hand in class for fear of their body being wrong… but we won’t worry about them. You can’t please everyone).
Headlines about obesity epidemics and simplified narratives around health keep the diet brands safe from scrutiny, it seems. They can use the health argument to justify hanging banners on school gates which sell the thin = happy / thin = successful / thin = healthy message. They just want to help people! They just want as many people as possible to know that for a minimal fee they too can lose weight and get their life back on track. Their work is practically charitable, really. (We’ll skim over the fact many of these diet ads show pictures of chips and “junk foods” – photos of the very foods the ASA recently banned from being advertised within 100 metres of a school due to said obesity epidemic.)
And apparently the reality of the problem is too meta to cover in the news, as journalists regularly get in touch saying they’re interested in the campaign and want to cover it, but only if I can get proof of a rep actually handing a leaflet to a child and saying something along the lines of “You’re fat, read this, then come to my club”, before locking them up in a (low calorie) ice cream van Child Catcher style and stealing them away into the diet branded sunset. Of course this isn’t happening, the reality is far more nuanced and less tabloid- shocking, but no less dangerous.
The rates of pre-teens with eating disorders has doubled in the last decade. One in five girls aren’t raising their hand in class for fear of being judged over how they look. Children are under-performing at school and some aren’t attending altogether due to the way they feel about their body. But yes, let’s just blame it all on Instagram and photo editing apps and “the media”, because that’s easier than addressing the fact thousands of our children are walking past huge banners for diet brands on their school railings every single day.
And so I guess it’s no surprise that none of the diet brands agreed to join us for our first round table event, to find a way to work together to market their products in a more responsible way, away from children. Change doesn’t happen overnight and all that.
But what was pretty cool was the fact that Girl Guiding UK joined us for the discussion, offering amazing insight into the point of view of young people, and telling us about the brilliant work they’re doing to counteract negative body image and narrow beauty ideals and promote self esteem amongst young girls. And what was also pretty cool was the fact we had two health professionals – an eating disorder therapist and a GP – at the meeting too, along with an activist who only went and met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan two days afterwards and told him all about the campaign. Pretty cool indeed.
If you’re interested in finding out about what was discussed on the day and some of the key areas we’re working on to counteract diet club messaging around kids (while we simultaneously work to get it eradicated around schools completely) then you can read the full round table report here.
You can also have your say on the specific areas you’d like us to focus on here.
Next month we’ll be announcing big plans for 2020, including some really fun and inspiring events that you can get involved in and fundraising activity to fund brilliant new initiatives to counteract the diet messaging (body image workshops for teachers are top of our list!).
I know it’s a scary time. And the news is often depressing and uncertain. But I feel hopeful for 2020 because I see how many amazing people are working to put good stuff into the world, actively create change, give up their time and their platforms for free to make a difference. And this gives me hope.
We’re only just getting started.