Teen actress: Anti-obesity ads made me more confident

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.

“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.

** ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MAY 2, 2011 AND THEREAFTER ** This image made Thursday, April 21, 2011 shows a page from the website The advertisement, part of a "Stop Child Obesity" campaign in Georgia, won some enthusiastic praise for their attention-grabbing tactics. But they also have outraged parents, activists and academics who feel the result is more stigma for an already beleaguered group of children. (AP Photo)

“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.”

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.”