Anti-obesity campaign Photoshops kids to make them look fat

Sponsors of a campaign that's drawing ire say it's meant to educate parents and create change since pictures of healthy, smiling kids don't really work in targeting obesity.

This is one before and after Photoshop job that's not going down too well.

First 5 California has been doing anti-obesity campaigns for years, hoping to inculcate healthy food habits among parents. This year, the government-funded early childhood program went a step further and Photoshopped images of kids to make them appear bigger than they normally were.

Related: Obesity in America: What's Driving the Epidemic?

"It was intended to show parents the real-life consequences of obesity and what sugar can do to our children's lives," said First 5 spokesperson Lindsay Van Laningham. "The ads have just started going up in a series of convenience stores in certain parts of the state where it's hard to get access to healthy food … areas deemed 'food deserts.'"

First 5's Asian-American anti-obesity campaign.First 5

San Francisco resident Marilyn Wann noticed one of these ads featuring a Photoshopped African-American child drinking sugar through a straw in the corner wall of a store in her neighborhood of Western Addition, a historically African-American area.

Another Facebook user traced the original picture of the child drinking milk, not sugar, to the First 5 website.

"It was so mindblowingly hateful that I Photoshopped them together and posted them on Facebook and on Tumblr," Wann said. "Hate messages are bad for public health. Children of all sizes deserve to be valued as they are and supported in eating and exercising, because these behaviors are fun, feel good, and are good for health. No shame or blame!"

Wann's Facebook post has drawn ire from activists who are calling the anti-obesity ads racist.

Related: Is Coke's anti-obesity campaign the real thing?

"I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed she is darker in the 'sugar' picture. Apparently according to them, sugar makes you fatter and darker as well," one commenter said.

But Van Laningham said that "race was inconsequential" in the campaign.

"We did a series of focus groups before producing the ads — it was the parents who asked us to make her bigger," she said. "They needed to see the dramatic impact to see what would make them change their actions. We spend years doing campaigns with healthy happy kids and sometimes you have to get a little bit provocative to get action. The parents told us, 'We need to see obese children, we need to see children with their teeth rotting.'"

Jezebel picked up on the ad, calling it "the worst photoshop botch job in a LOOOONG time."

"The (originally adorable) girl looks like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal or Tracy Jordan in Fat Bitch," writer Laura Beck commented. "I wouldn't exactly call her fat, and I wouldn't call her wouldn't [sic] human-looking either."

Some of the ads also target the Asian-American population and show pictures of Photoshopped fat Asian children sipping sugar.

"They are just stock images which were Photoshopped," Van Laningham said. "When you are handing a child soda or a juice box to drink you might as well be handing them a packet of sugar. Because that's what is happening."

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