Shrek: Wrong Symbol for Anti-Obesity

Posted: May 17, 2007 2:25 PM

"Shrek the Third" opens this weekend, and my four kids and I can't wait.

Of course, we didn't have to wait. We see him -- Shrek --all over the grocery store, for starters. The lovable, hugely overweight ogre has been turning up on everything from Sierra Mist soda to M&Ms to Fruit Loops cereal. I've had to listen to him burp constantly since he arrived as my children's McDonald's Happy Meal toy.

Now, I'm all for marketing and product tie-ins. They are what make the free-market world go around. But, only the federal government could have come up with the brainless idea to make Shrek its face for its anti-childhood-obesity drive. Seriously.

Let's review. Childhood-obesity rates, already at epidemic proportions, are skyrocketing ever higher and faster. A report published last year by the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity said that by 2010, half of American kids will be overweight or even obese. That's up from previous projections of one-third. These kids are at risk for a lifetime of chronic and even deadly health conditions. Already, two-thirds of the adult population is overweight or obese, making the condition the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, just barely behind smoking.

And I don't lay the whole problem on cheap junk food or McDonald's. Those things may be cheaper and more available now, and maybe they are partly to blame, but they were pretty prevalent when I was a kid, too. Yet the rates of childhood obesity and overweight back then were comparatively tiny (about 4 percent of kids ages 6-11 in 1970). I remember one early-'70s-era commercial for Hostess treats. The ad featured kids watching TV (the horror!) after school. The lovely suburban mother walks into the TV room with a platter full of Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies, and the kids scoop them up with a big "Thanks, Mom!"

I recall literally asking my mother to do that very thing for us. She responded that I was crazy if I ever thought that would happen in our home.

In other words: Sure, the world is full of temptations. Yes, kids get too much "screen time." But it's ultimately up to parents to say "no," and to teach our children to say "no" to themselves and their unhealthy passions. Like overeating.

Unlike the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, I'm not really concerned that Shrek is on soda, which doesn't come into my house except for special occasions. Like I said, I rather like commercialism in principle. What I would like to revisit with the feds is the fact that Shrek is obese. Did anyone think about that slight contradiction when he was hired to be the face of the government's anti-obesity campaign?

"Shrek is a good model, especially for children who can benefit from more exercise," a Health and Human Services official responsible for Shrek's new job told the Associated Press. "He doesn't have a perfect physique."

Doesn't have a perfect physique? Shrek is fat. In fact, he is morbidly obese. He is a heart attack waiting to happen. Fat is never "fit" despite what some folks would love to believe. Is it really hard to understand that he should not be held up as a health model in an anti-obesity campaign? Or, is this partly about making obese kids feel OK about being obese? Because if that's the case, well, even the feds can't have their cake and eat it, too.

Would we want kids who smoke to feel good about that habit?

The Chicago Sun-Times recently put it this way about Shrek's new job as a health advocate: "Shrek Shills Dietary Dreck -- Dump him." Exactly.

He's lovable in the movies, and I myself swoon at his accent. But only the government could come up with the idea of obese Shrek as a "Health Advocate." Once again, our tax dollars at work. Sigh.