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TODAY
Maya Walter, a 14-year-old actress who appears in a controversial new public service campaign against childhood obesity, said the experience has increased her self-esteem: “Now I see somebody likes me just the way I am.”
By
TODAY contributor
updated 5/6/2011 10:49:59 AM ET 2011-05-06T14:49:59

When Maya Walters, a pretty but overweight 14-year-old, decided at her mother’s urging to audition for a series of controversial, in-your-face online videos and billboards targeting the growing problem of childhood obesity, she had doubts.

After all, like many kids in her position, she had sometimes been the target of cruel jibes from other children because of her weight, Maya told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Friday, and she worried that her appearance in those ads could make things worse — especially when it would be her face appearing next to headlines as stark as “Chubby kids may not outlive their parents.”

But even though critics charge that the ads for the Georgia-based campaign “Stop Childhood Obesity” go too far and may actually add to the stigma faced by the nation’s 12.5 million overweight children and teens, Maya says her role in the campaign has actually boosted her self-esteem.

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“At first I had a little hesitation,” Maya told Vieira. “But I was like, ‘just give it a try,’ and once I got the part and I went there, I saw it was a really great opportunity.

“This ad actually helped me, gave me way more self-confidence than I had before,” she said.

Striking a nerve
There is no question that the public service campaign, which has drawn fire from child psychologists and advocacy groups like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, has struck a nerve, said campaign chairman Ron Frieson of Children’s Health Care Atlanta. And that, he says, was the point: Culling quotes from overweight children and putting them in the mouths of young actors who are also overweight was a calculated move.

“We knew that there would be some discomfort when these ads would initially go up,” Frieson told Vieira. “Keep in mind that this is a three-part campaign: This is part one. The first part is intended to raise the level of awareness. We’ve got to give voice to these kids — in their words — how they feel about being overweight.

AP
This advertisement, part of a "Stop Child Obesity" campaign in Georgia, is one of the ones that have outraged critics who feel they stigmatize overweight children. But a 14-year-old actress who appears in the campaign says it has boosted her self-confidence.

“Actually, we want the parents to be aware, we want educators to be aware, and we want other kids to see these kids, who may very well [relate] to them.”

In fact, Frieson said, it was in meetings with overweight children themselves that the tenor of the ad campaign had its genesis. “We actually did a focus group and we asked these kids: ‘How should we talk about being overweight, being obese?’ They told us, ‘Give to us straight, tell us the facts, so we can make decisions on our own about how we want to live our lives.’ ”

As for his critics, Frieson said: “Keep in mind, when people are uncomfortable, then these charges come about. We actually talked to some of the parents early on. The parents say that it was more important for their kids to be happy than to focus on their weight, assuming that they would grow out of their weight issues.

“But the fact is … these kids are 10 times as likely to become overweight adults than their normal-weight peers.”

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Risks and rewards
There is something to be said for that in-your-face approach, acknowledged clinical psychologist Judith Sills: “Parents don’t want to see [their] kid suffering, so you do have to kind of put it in their faces, say ‘Take a look at this,’ ” she told Vieira.

Still, she added, the approach is not without peril. “There’s a price to be paid, and the price is the stigma that fat is so awful we get 9-year-old girls dieting because they don’t want to have that problem.

“We need a holistic approach, a wellness approach that says every kid — fat, skinny, in the middle — needs to get up and move,” Sills added. “Every parent needs to get active. We don’t want to separate out obesity, but we want to notice the problem.”

The next two phases of the campaign will stress that holistic approach, Frieson said. As a clip from the next installment played, he explained: “You’ll see Maya and you’ll see the rest of her counterparts there become much more active, extremely happy about their journey to become more healthy. And the third part of the campaign talks about the actual solution.”

As for Maya, she has already lost a little weight since working on the campaign. But more important, she is feeling better about herself.

Before appearing in the ads, she said, “I didn’t feel pretty, I didn’t feel like I could do anything like this because of my weight. Now I see somebody likes me just the way I am.”


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Video: Is anti-obesity campaign harmful to kids?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is anti-obesity campaign harmful to kids?

    >>> with a new anti-obesity campaign aimed at kids that's being blasted by some critics for being too harsh.

    >> i don't like how they look or taste.

    >> it hurts my feelings.

    >> i could have diabetes for my life.

    >> reporter: it's tough and straightforward and the creators of the campaign say it's necessary.

    >> we're giving voice to these kids.

    >> reporter: the message is loud and clear -- stop childhood obesity . it's the latest attempt by a georgia-based organization to tackle the issue through attention-grabbing bill boards and online ads .

    >> we felt it would take drastic measures to get people to at least engage in the dialogue.

    >> reporter: with headlines like "chubby kids may not outlive their parents" critics say the tactics are too drastic.

    >> this campaign is an example of what not to do. they perpetuate prejudice toward children who are already vulnerable to teasing and bullying because of their weight.

    >> reporter: the problem is only getting worse. according to the centers for disease control , in the past 30 year it is number of obese kids in the u.s. has tripled. currently, 12.5 million children and teenagers are overweight. nationwide, childhood obesity is a hot topic. first lady michelle obama made it a priority with her let's move campaign. even beyonce has gotten in on the action.

    >> all the other kids pick on me.

    >> reporter: in georgia it's not all singing and dancing. experts say such scare tactics can backfire.

    >> they always pick on me.

    >> when children are teased or stigmatized because of their weight they are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors and avoidance of physical activity, both of which can reinforce additional weight gain and obesity.

    >> reporter: creators of stop childhood obesity disagree.

    >> we have heard from more kids who have raised their hands and said, can you help me?

    >> reporter: a heavy issue that many kids don't want to face alone. for "today," nbc news, miami.

    >> ron prizen is the chair of the stop childhood obesity campaign. maya walters is the 14-year-old actor featured in the ads. they are here with clinical psychologist judith sills. maya , did you think the ads would be controversial or is that the idea?

    >> we knew there would be some discomfort when the ads would go up. keep in mind this is a three-part campaign.

    >> this is part one.

    >> this is part one. the first part is intended to raise the level of awareness. we tried to give voice to these kids in their words how they feel about being overweight.

    >> you're aiming it at parents, is that correct?

    >> we want the parents to be aware, but we want educators to be aware and we want other kids to see these kids who may relate to them.

    >> i want people to know that the kids in the commercials are acting. they are actors. but the words they speak are from kids you talked to. it's a direct dialogue. what were the kids saying?

    >> we did a focus group and asked the kids, how should we talk about being overweight, being obese? they told us, give it to us straight, tell us the facts so we can make decisions about how to live our lives.

    >> maya , your mom saw an ad on facebook and said, why don't we try this. didhesitation?

    >> at first i did. but once i got the part and i went there, i saw it was a great opportunity.

    >> were you worried though as some people have said that the ads might contribute to more bullying? have you faced bullying in your life because of weight issues?

    >> yes. every kid experiences bullying. this ad gave me way more self-confidence than i had before to know they liked me just how i was. not a lot of people at my school saw the ad. but i haven't gotten bullied because of it.

    >> you felt by doing it, you feel better about yourself?

    >> yes.

    >> why is that?

    >> because before i didn't feel pretty. i didn't feel i could do anything like this because of my weight and now i see somebody likes me just the way i am and because of how i look.

    >> i want to talk about the criticism, ron . the national association to advance fat acceptance said you are making children think there is something wrong with them. how do you respond to that?

    >> well, keep in mind when people are uncomfortable these charges come about. we'll say in a heartbeat, you are listening to the kids in terms of how they feel about this disease. we actually talked to some of the parents early on and the parents said that it was more important for kids to be happy than to focus on their weight. assuming that they will grow out of their weight issues. but the fact is, meredith, these kids are ten times as likely to become overweight adults than their normal-wigeight peers. we know they are already suffering from low self-esteem, depression and in addition to that, loads of clinical types of issues.

    >> do you think these ads are the way to go to address those issues?

    >> well, i think the straight talk and aggressiveness address the denial ron talked about. parents don't want to see my kid suffering. so you do have to put it in their face and say, take a look at this. at the same time, meredith, there is a price to be paid and the price is the stigma that fat is so awful we get 9-year-old girls dieting because they don't want to have that problem. we need a wellness approach that s says every kid needs to get up and move. every parent needs to get active. we don't want to separate out obesity, but we want to notice the problem.

    >> as we go forward with the campaign the ads that are to follow are directed at healthy eating and kids encouraging their parents to get involved.

    >> the second part of the campaign we call activate. you will see maya and the rest of her counterparts becoming more active, happy about the journey to become more healthy. third part of the campaign talks about the solutions.

    >> maya , i want to add that because of doing the ad you and your mom started trying to get healthy together.

    >> yes.

    >> which is a great thing. and you have lost a little bit of weight, i understand.

    >> yes.

    >> you're feeling even better about yourself?

    >> yes.

    >> it's all positive. thank you so much.

    >> thank you.

Vote: Do new anti-child obesity ads go too far?