Disney Closes Anti-Obesity Exhibit Amid Critical Backlash

The Habit Heroes exhibit, some say, used "the tool of shame" to criticize overweight children.

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Childhood obesity is a growing problem in not just the United States, but around the world. To wit, First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign aims to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity and to focus on strategies and programs to get kids eating better, staying active and leading healthier lives. So when Disney tried to throw their hat in the obesity-awareness ring with an exhibit at Walt Disney World, the intense backlash they received must have come as a surprise.

A new attraction called Habit Heroes opened for a soft launch at Epcot last month, only to be shut down after complaints about the insensitivity of the exhibit. Habit Heroes, which was created by Disney in conjunction with health insurance providers Blue Cross/Blue Shield, took visitors through a series of interactive experiences to fight bad habits, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The exhibit was meant to encourage children to learn healthy lifestyle habits and be more active. Animated characters by the name of Will Power and Callie Stenics (both highly fit) would lead visitors through various interactive rooms, where they’d battle villains like Sweet Tooth and Lead Bottom against bad habits like eating too much junk food or watching too much television.

It’s not necessarily the theory of the exhibit that has people up in arms, but rather its execution. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance spoke out against the attraction in a statement: “We’re appalled to learn that Disney, a traditional hallmark of childhood happiness and joy, has fallen under the shadow of negativity and discrimination.”

(MORE: Is the Fight Against Childhood Obesity Creating Eating Disorders?)

The association went on to say that Disney was using “the tool of shame” to communicate its message to children. Most of the negative habits were associated with the obese characters, which the association says furthers the stigma against people of higher body weight. Also, the exhibit didn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that obesity is, in fact, a disease for many people, and genetics, illness or depression are often key factors.

Disney’s postponed the attraction’s official March 5 opening, and the website is also down for maintenance. John W. Herbkersman, spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, said, “Our goal is to ensure the attraction conveys a positive message about healthy lifestyles in a fun and empowering way. To work on further improving and refining the experience, the attraction is closed for the time being. We look forward to officially opening it soon.”

What would make all the difference is if the exhibit portrayed the realities of unhealthy habits; there are children of all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and ages, who practice bad habits. And often, those who make healthier choices may not appear like what society has deemed to look “healthy.” There are skinny children who subsist solely on gummy bears at school, and heavier children who bring balanced lunches with fruits and vegetables. There are fat kids who watch too much TV and skinny kids who watch too much TV.

Disney’s heart may have been in the right place, but like the adage goes: it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

MORE: Healthier School Lunches: Will They Actually Change What Kids Eat?