Does An Overweight Barbie Really Help Latinas Get Healthy?

By Guest Columnist Feb 25, 2009

by Nina Jacinto This post originally appeared on WireTap. A new campaign by Latinworks, a Texas-based marketing agency that claims to "effectively and efficiently" target the Latino market through advertising, has created a campaign for ACTIVE life that warns against childhood obesity. The ads feature overweight Barbie, Superman and Lego Pirates eating fast food and appearing inactive; the slogan at the bottom of each print reads "Keep obesity away from your child." Putting away my first question — did Barbie ever portray a healthy body image to young people? — I wonder how effective this kind of advertising will be in promoting healthier, active lifestyles. The ads seem to associate being overweight with being lazy; and instead of promoting the goal of health and wellness, they risk perpetuating unrealistic and socialized notions of what is attractive and what looks healthy. Given the prevalence of childhood obesity among people of color living in low-income communities and the fact that the nation spends $14 billion a year in direct health care for childhood obesity treatment, the work that needs to be done to address this epidemic will be more complicated than advertisements such as these. A research study conducted by the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (LCHC) shows that compared to other ethnic groups in California, Latino males and females of all ages have among the highest rates of obesity. Obese children are at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, asthma, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. According to the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, the food and beverage industry spent $260 million (PDF) to target "Latino-oriented" media. Research also shows (PDF) that the food and beverages advertised to African-Americans and Latinos are lower in nutrients, and higher in fat and sugar, than those marketed to mainstream audiences. It isn’t as simple as telling people "eat healthier, exercise more, prevent obesity among your children." Race-based and socioeconomic inequities have created communities in which access to safe places to play and fresh affordable produce are limited or nonexistent. LCHC reported that "in California only 52 percent of residents in low-income areas live within one-half mile walking distance of a supermarket" and that "twenty-nine percent of Latino adolescents have no access to safe parks or open spaces, compared with 22 percent of White adolescents." In order to provide equitable and effective treatment for childhood obesity among Latino youth, intervention at every level must consider racial, cultural and socioeconomic factors. LCHC’s report and organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Salud America! advocate for a multi-sector model of intervention. Action must be taken to assure safe neighborhoods that have access to healthy foods. Schools, churches, and local organizations should provide health and wellness education and programs. Of course, significant changes in obesity prevention will rely on bigger, institutional changes: fair wages, access to healthcare, better funding for public schools, affordable housing, and transformed environmental conditions. Advertising that seems to place blame on the victims of childhood obesity rather than the systems that have perpetuated the epidemic will not be sufficient in creating change. Nina Jacinto is a freelance blogger living in the Bay Area whose writing focuses on issues of race, gender, and media representation.