Going rogue to fight obesity: Undercover video project stalks overweight people in Macon
One man’s mission to bring to light an obesity epidemic in Macon County has offended many in the community, prompted threats from some and even prompting a response from the sheriff.
A series of narrated videos posted on YouTube last week capture images of overweight people going about their lives — from sitting at a computer in the library to walking out of Fat Buddies BBQ restaurant. The subjects had no idea they were being filmed, let alone that they would make a star appearance in the footage of this underground, amateur reality show posted online for the world to see. Within days of being posted, some videos had nearly 10,000 views.
Hugh Simpson, the man behind the movies, claims he wasn’t trying to offend anyone. Putting overweight residents on display in his YouTube series was his way of addressing what he sees as a serious issue.
“I would hope that Macon County would realize they got a problem by looking at that,” Simpson said. “I was just hoping it would be a wake-up call.”
He even shot a segment on the greenway in Franklin, showing the largely empty recreational space as proof that Maconians are not exercising.
The only thing the videos seemed to wake up, however, was anger and reproach from community members. Debbie Nickerson, a manager at Fat Buddies in Franklin, didn’t take kindly to Simpson filming the restaurant’s patrons and making fun of the establishment’s name while he narrated.
If Simpson’s goal was to prompt healthy lifestyle changes, Nickerson said sarcastic and offensive Internet videos were not the most effective approach.
“Nagging doesn’t get anybody anywhere,” Nickerson said. “Negativity does not breed anything but more negativity, really.”
Nickerson went on to defend Fat Buddies. Sure, the place has great, albeit unhealthy, barbecue. But it also has menu choices like salads and low-fat and gluten-free options. Since the video was made from the parking lot of the restaurant, she said the restaurant has had an uptick in patrons coming out to support it. But that was the only silver lining she could find from Simpson’s videos.
“We certainly don’t condone his actions or the comments that he made about the people here in Macon County,” Nickerson said.
At the center of Simpson’s campaign are a set of statistics he came across from a health survey conducted last year. That data, collected from random phone interviews, indicates that Macon County has an obesity rate about 7 percent higher than the national average and 6 percent higher than the regional average.
With more than 35 percent of the county’s adult residents reportedly obese, and nearly 70 percent overweight, Simpson said there is cause for alarm and didn’t want to sugarcoat it. County health officials state the numbers are self-reported and not entirely accurate. Macon County is no worse off than most of the rest of the country, said Kathy McGaha, quality program manger at the county health department.
“It’s something that is an issue, but it’s an issue for the entire nation,” McGaha said.
But Simpson pointed to another statistic: more than 30 percent of Macon residents are limited in activities in some way due to physical, mental or emotional problems, compared with 17 percent nationally. Obesity is affecting how people live — maybe even keeping them off the greenway.
“We face a health crisis,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to go back to taking care of ourselves.”
Simpson said he once struggled with weight himself, and recently lost 50 pounds by switching his choice of breakfast foods to a Subway sandwich and practicing one of his favorite pastimes of walking along highways and roads. He also maintains a website, naturalflatbelly.com, with tips on how to trim belly fat.
The videos, he said, were the product of his past career as an investigative television news reporter and were merely aimed at helping people acknowledge the obesity epidemic.
However, the counter-obesity YouTube venture was short-lived after Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland contacted Simpson last week and asked him to take the videos down because of numerous complaints the office had received. Simpson obliged.
The sheriff said people who were captured in the videos called in upset. Others were uncomfortable with the fact that some of Simpson’s footage contained children — though Simpson contends they were in a public place merely standing next to their overweight parents.
After conferring with the district attorney’s office, Holland decided the video project didn’t warrant criminal charges and was not actually illegal. Simpson videotaped the individuals without their consent, but they’re all fully-clothed and in a public place, so it’s not a violation of state law, Holland said.
“While personally I think it’s rude and inappropriate, the unfortunate part is that there’s nothing illegal about it,” Holland said. “If he was videotaping people from inside their residences it would be a different ballgame.”
Simpson said the sheriff did, however, communicate to him that his safety was in danger and that the videos were causing a disturbance.
Simpson said he’s had threats posted on his blogs in the wake of the videos, including one commenter who promised to look for him if he went on the greenway again.
“They want to murder me, lynch me, beat me,” Simpson said.
Reactions of that sort from the local residents didn’t surprise Bonnie Peggs, marketing director at Angel Medical Center and organizer of the hospital’s weight-loss program. She likened Simpson’s videos to an antiquated method of schoolroom punishment.
“It’s sort of like the old idea of kids in the school when they would make them wear a dunce hat to make them behave better, when it actually made them worse,” Peggs said.
Angel Hospital’s program, Lighten Up 4 Life, encourages teams of people who want to lose weight to take on the challenge by turning it into a fun competition, based on group support and positive reinforcement. The teams that lose the largest percentage of weight during the course of the competition win prizes.
Since the program started two years ago, participants have lost a collective 4,000 pounds. For the session that starts at the end of August, already 700 people have signed up.
She said Simpson might have the right idea in wanting to do something about the scourge of obesity in the county, but maybe he didn’t choose the right way to attack it.
“If you just badger them down, they don’t have any desire to change anything except be unkind back to the person who is being unkind to them,” Peggs said.