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Cancer Research UK’s Obesity Awareness Campaign – Is It Fat Shaming?

It has been a couple of weeks since cancer research UK launched the latest wave of their obesity awareness campaign, designed to inform us about the impact obesity can have on your chances of developing certain types of cancer. You may have seen a few of the billboards around and about…

The reaction was eye-opening, to say the least. The fitness blogs and social media channels went into meltdown. It was the biggest debate around a health issue I’ve seen since the sugar tax was proposed.

Cue the offended masses, criticising the ‘Fat Shaming’ message of the campaign. What. The. Fuck.

This is a flavour of the response from the people who accused the campaign of fat shaming/being offensive. This tweet is from the first wave of the campaign. For the record, I’m not singling out Sofie Hagen for any reason other than she was pretty vocal on the subject and actively sought to have the campaign removed.

Yup, that’s the adult way to deal with something you don’t like – have it removed, regardless of the wider impact it may have on others.

obesity awareness campaign

‘Because it upsets ME, I want to make sure it’s removed everywhere, even if YOU are fine with it.’

By the way, if nothing else highlights the faux outrage, the keyboard activism it’s this line…. “Is there something I can sign?” Hilarious. At that point, your outrage lost any credibility, Sofie.

To answer your question, Sofie, yes – there probably is something you can sign. There’s also good old fashioned (genuine) outrage, where you actually do something about it, you know, like rip posters down, start a protest, paint over images, cause a real fuss. Not lazily sign an online petition and post a few ‘furious’ tweets.

Outrage is so passive now. So dilute. Maybe she needs a good dose of Gallic outrage, where they do things properly – shut down airports, blockade ports etc (only joshing – I’ve had more than my fair share of airport delays thanks to French air traffic control being outraged at one thing or another!)

Back to the outrage and offence. Is that where we’ve come to as a society? A point where medical professionals have to withhold potentially life saving information so as to not offend sensitive people?

There’s tinges of the Rotherham child rape case about that, where important information was withheld through fear of upsetting people.

And yes, I will call the offended people sensitive, because that’s exactly what they are. To be offended by a scientifically factual message is indicative of extreme sensitivity. A message, by the way, that at no point mentions a body shape being undesirable.

Declaring your emotional response to something doesn’t give you any power or moral high ground. It’s as powerful as saying you’re hungry. It’s meaningless. It declares your current state, it’s not the voice of reason over an issue.

The other problem with declaring offence is it’s so tepid. Calling a campaign offensive is such a nondescript term – offensive to whom? I’m not offended by it. I don’t know anyone who’s offended by it. In fact, as far as I can tell it’s ‘offensive’ to a small minority of people. Calling the campaign offensive is not a fact, it’s an opinion.

The other thing that it’s not, is body shaming.

obesity awareness campaign
Did they shame YOU personally? Did they shame ANYONE for that matter?

If you’re reading this and feel shamed by the campaign, it’s your issue, not the campaign’s.

I’ve looked at a lot of the adverts and I haven’t seen a single one that preaches one body type is more attractive, preferable, more desirable, sexier, less shameful than any other. Instead, they share a perfectly appropriate, scientifically and statistical accurate series of messages, that obesity is one of the leading causes of cancer.

Not only that, but a few seconds of searching on the Cancer Research UK website will even show you how obesity is linked to various types of cancer….

obesity awareness campaign

So why do people feel shamed by scientifically accurate information being shared on a wider scale? I’m no social psychologist, but my guess is because it chips at our ego.

It’s a challenge to our sense of self. A criticism of us and how we decide to live our lives, the choices we make and the outcomes of those choices. It’ll only offend you if you feel a degree of embarrassment about yourself or your choices.

For what its worth, I don’t believe that anyone who claims to be happily fat yet finds themselves offended by this. If you were truly happy with your weight (as is your right to be), then it wouldn’t bother you if anyone suggested being overweight was making you less healthy and at higher risk of cancer.

I love eating meat. Do I feel ashamed when I see an advert for PETA? Nope, because I’m perfectly at ease with my decision to eat meat.

I ate this steak shamelessly. Loved it, too. The marrow was bland though.

Usually (and I’m stereotyping here, but it’s my party so I’ll do what I want to), the people who are offended by this kind of message are the left-leaning members of society. I’ve probably even got one foot in that camp myself, truth be told.

But (and it’s a big but, no pun intended) if you’re going to extol the virtues of civil liberties and freedom of speech, then you have to accept that those very same freedoms of speech apply to those who think differently to you. I’m pissed off that my country voted for Brexit. It doesn’t mean I think we should ban Brexiteers their right to air their views.

You can’t live with the belief that your right to not be offended is greater than the right the other side have to free speech. Let me repeat that, so it sinks in…

Your right to not be offended doesn’t supersede the right of others to voice an opinion you don’t agree with.

But there’s a more worrying issue around this fat shaming/obesity awareness campaign…

It’s about the notion of body positivity. Here’s why I think it’s a worrying issue…

Actually, before I go any further, let me clarify my position on the body positivity movement, so as to not cross wires. I’ve taken this section from a previous article I wrote titled ‘Fat But Fit But Do You Know What You’re Talking About?’….

I am all for people being happy and proud in their own skin, whatever size and shape you are. If you’re happy and healthy, good for you. Keep smiling.

What I’m against is the sections of the body positive community encouraging others to embrace being overweight as if it doesn’t matter. It does. It’s dangerous, it’s clearly unhealthy and it sets a bad example.

Don’t encourage weight gain just to rebel against a media portrayal of ‘perfect’.

At its core, ‘body positivity’ is a rebellion. A rebellion against media portrayals of what we ‘should’ look like. I get it and in part I agree with it, but I think there’s a pretty huge gap between a version of body positivity that promotes health, self esteem, happiness and confidence and a version of body positivity that encourages obesity.

So there’s my thinking on the subject – it hasn’t changed. My worry is that when campaigns like the CRUK one are launched, the offended people don’t look at the messaging and instead react emotionally.

It then creates a situation where via a medium like Twitter, the Sofie Hagen’s (self-titled ‘Fat Activist’, whatever that is) of the world issue a rallying cry and the narrative becomes about how offensive the campaign is rather than how we can take more ownership of our health. It’s deflective and the real message is lost.

obesity awareness campaign

There’ll be thousands (maybe even millions) of people who had no idea that being overweight could increase their risk of cancer and this campaign has enlightened them, possibly triggering positive changes in behaviour that will improve their health and reduce their risk of various cancers.

Good for them. If you’re one of them, congratulations on making a positive lifestyle change. Your future self will thank you.

Is the Cancer Research Obesity Awareness Campaign Effective?

There’s a couple of ways we can determine the effectiveness of the campaign…

  1. Has it raised awareness of the link between obesity and cancer?
  2. Has it triggered behaviour change?

The answer to the first one is an unequivocal yes. It has been a stellar success in that regard.

Regular readers of this blog know I earn a large chunk of my living from fitness copywriting. I write about fitness, nutrition, healthy lifestyle info, fitness news and views, blah, blah and indeed, blah.

One of the points of copywriting is that your work is supposed to be readable. It’s supposed to catch and hold attention. In some cases, it is designed to challenge the reader, to ask them to think, consider a new perspective. It can be memorable and it has to relay a message.

Advertising is SUPPOSED to catch attention. It’s SUPPOSED to be divisive. It’s a pattern interrupt, designed to make you think.

From a copywriting/advertising perspective, this campaign is an A*, First-Class degree from Oxbridge, top of the class piece of work. A load of people are talking about it. I’m a personal trainer and fitness writer, not an oncologist and I’m writing about it. Social media is alive with it. It has made the front page news and even the TV news….

obesity awareness campaign
This was from The Times newspaper.

Awareness, raised.

As for causing offence….

I’d bet my mortgage that in no way did the obesity awareness campaign brief state that the messaging had to cause no offence. Partly because nowadays, it’s almost impossible to not offend at least a few people regardless of how sensitively you approach a subject.

Some may be offended, but its job was to raise awareness, get people talking and promote the subject in the public conciseness. It has done it perfectly. I bet the marketing department at CRUK are employees of the month there – they should be.

But did the obesity awareness campaign work for changing behaviours?

The reality is, we don’t know and won’t know for a while. I’d hazard a guess at yes, there’ll be a lot of people who will have been inspired to lose weight as a result of this obesity awareness campaign.

There’ll also be people who have lost/are losing friends and relatives to cancer that will now know their obesity increases their own chances of suffering the same fate. This campaign may be part of the motivation to illicit change in their own life.

In many cases, the obesity awareness campaign will be part of the motivation, if not the sole motivation to lose weight. It’s impossible to quantify.

On the counter side, there’s an argument that hammering home this message will just cause people to rebel further and gain even more weight in response, as they’ll be even more disillusioned with health practitioners and health advice.

If that isn’t the most immature, cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face reaction possible then I don’t know what is. If people will harm their own health because they’re upset about a cancer prevention campaign, let them get on with it.

It won’t seem so offensive when they’re going through their latest episode of gut-wrenching agony on the back end of a dose chemotherapy, for a cancer partially caused by the obesity they fuelled due to an emotional reaction to a campaign designed to help them improve their health a tad (aaaaand, breathe).

Will it?

Try to Define Offensive, Anyway…

Offence in this instance is (I think) an issue around interpretation – what CRUK may have issued to shock people into better choices, some people have chosen to be upset by.

We seem to have no issue with tobacco adverts showing a doctor squeezing the plaque out of a clogged artery, but point out the risk factors of being obese and the (sensitive) world and his wife lose their shit.

The people who are offended seem to have interpreted the messages to be attacking a body shape, when instead it appears (to me at least) to be merely informing the public that obesity increases your risk of certain cancers. This isn’t ‘opinion’, it’s scientific fact. You can’t argue with that. Cancer doesn’t give a fuck if you’re happy being fat or not.

We Should Try Another Anti-Obesity Approach…

This is the message from some industry professionals who are against the obesity awareness campaign. My challenge to them is…. what other approach? The fight against obesity already has many different fronts. There’s a medical front, a surgical front, a mental health front, a societal front, an educational front, a behavioural front. How many more fronts do we need?

I’ve worked in the health and weight loss industry for 15 years and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this time is that not one single approach is effective for all. Some things work for some, other things work for others.

There’s now more access to health and fitness activities than ever before. There are tax incentives to encourage people to ride bikes (cycle to work scheme), there are more cycle lanes on British roads than before. There are FREE to enter, non-competitive fun runs every week around the country (ParkRun), there are health insurance incentives to be more active (Vitality).

There are slimming clubs on prescription, there is dietary and nutritional advice all around us. TV has lots of shows giving tips on healthy diet and advice. YouTube is full of nutrition channels, exercise channels and motivational channels. Advice and motivation is all around us.

Many businesses offer staff free/discounted gym memberships and there are thousands of discount gyms all over the country. Society, industry and local authorities are doing their bit to help the nation get fitter and healthier, but given obesity is still on the rise, the public aren’t taking on their fair share of the burden.

Something I do know is that until we take ownership for our own health, nothing is going to change. No obesity awareness campaigns (regardless of how they deal with the issue), no incentives, no easy access, nothing. You can lead a horse to water and all that…

We should stop suggesting not enough is being done to help fight obesity. There is already a lot being done – more now than ever before. At this point, it’s a question of ownership. We all have to take ownership of our decisions around our health, both good and bad.

If you want to reduce your cancer risk, you have to take it on yourself. Your health is your responsibility.

Final Thoughts on the Cancer Awareness Obesity Campaign….

Offending a handful of people on the internet isn’t a reason to withdraw an important obesity awareness campaign.

If offending a few people in order to help raise awareness about this (in many cases preventable) disease is the price we have to pay, then lets pay it.


The world is a sensitive place now and in many ways if you oppose a view, you’re immediately labelled as insensitive (or worse), which isn’t right, nor is it fair. I’ll probably get some stick for this article. Thankfully, I’m not especially sensitive, so people can say what they want. It’s my opinion and like all of my opinions, it’s bang on the money.


Either way, it’s certainly balanced and informed.

I lost my Dad to cancer. Cancer is a horrible disease. It robs you of so many things, often starting with your hope, then your dignity and eventually in too many cases, your life.

If you’re offended by the obesity awareness campaign, for fuck’s sake put things into perspective. They’re posters. They’re not bullying you. They’re not calling you names. They’re giving you some information and informing you that perhaps one or two lifestyles choices you’re currently making or have made in the past are leading you to an increased risk of cancer.

If these posters help to change behaviours that lead to cancer in even one person, they’ve worked.

If you’re one of the offended ones, don’t worry, you’ll find something else to be offended by soon.

Here endeth the sermon.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten all gobby on a topic, by the way. Read my thoughts on…

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Owner of Personal Trainer, Father and fitness copy writer. Working hard making the world fitter and healthier!

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