Disney's Habit Heroes Accused of "fat-shaming"

Meet Snacker: Disney's newest fairy at the center of a major controversy.

The zaftig Snacker, along with a bean-bag shaped mob figure named "Glutton" and a ball-bellied couch potato named "Lead Bottom" make of a few of the cartoon villains in Epcot Center's educational exhibit Habit Heroes.

The theme park's interactive experience and corresponding website were created in collaboration with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, to teach kids healthy eating habits. But after a soft launch three weeks ago, critics have accused the exhibit of "fat-shaming," and Disney has responded by closing the exhibit as the company mulls a relaunch. And the website is down for maintenance.

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"It's so dumbfounding it's unreal," Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine, told the Calgary Herald. "I just can't believe somebody out there thought it was a good idea to pick up where the school bullies left off and shame kids on their vacation."

In question are the over-exaggerated body types of the villains and their association with being bad. Visitors entering to the three interactive rooms are first introduced to their heroes: The fit, muscular Will Power and Callie Stenics. They're also confronted with the overweight caricatures, each one a product of unhealthy habits. Snacker loves processed foods, and visitors use arcade guns to shoot vegetables at the cream puffs and hotdogs that surround her like an aura.

The intention is to inspire kids to live healthier, but the message, says Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams, is that "fat people are bad."

Disney princesses have come under fire before for sending negative messages to young girls about their own waistlines. A recent study found young girls who viewed several Disney movies were more likely to identify a virtuous, aspirational "princess" as someone who's thin. Consider the Little Mermaid, a movie where the slender main character spends most of her time in a bikini, while villain Ursula fills the screen with her voluptuous tentacled body.

Much has changed since the early days of Ariel. We're now living in a country with a 17 percent childhood obesity rate. At the same time, school bullying cases and teen suicides have called attention to the need for sensitivity.

While combating obesity through education is crucial and certainly commendable, it's not as simple as a few cartoons and some tips on diet and exercise. Genetics, finance and family support play key roles in managing kids' weight in a healthy way. So does self-esteem.

A recent Atlanta PSA featuring overweight kids as cautionary tales, became a prime example of how not to teach kids about weight issues. Shame and fear are harmful tactics when it comes to tackling childhood obesity, because weight isn't the only issue on the table.

Disney's Habit Heroes may be learning that lesson. The exhibit has already been shuttered and the website is down for maintenance.

"The attraction is currently closed as we work to further refine the experience," Kathleen Prihoda, Disney's media relations manager told Shine on Wednesday. "Our goal with Habit Heroes is to make sure it conveys a positive message about healthy lifestyles in a fun way."

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Now they're looking to fix the fail and relaunch an improved exhibit. Prihoda added that the exhibit had never officially opened. "It was in soft open period, which allows us to get guest feedback, prior to the official opening."

Disney's rep couldn't offer any details on when Habit Heroes would re-launch or what it might look like when it does.

One problem with the exhibit that's harder to fix is its location. Disneyworld has it's share of restaurant options, but it's still a theme park. Funnel cakes and hot dogs are just what you do while you wait on line for Space Mountain. "You want to promote good heath? Start by looking at your own sugar and animal fat-laden menus," writes Salon's Williams. It's hard to practice healthy eating in the happiest place on earth.

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