Controversial Children’s Book Sends Misguided Message about Body Image
The outside matters most.
The only way to combat kids’ bullying is to change yourself.
Eating healthy is the same as dieting.
Or, at least, those are the combined lessons packaged up and ready for bookshelves in an upcoming children’s book.
The recent uproar over Maggie Goes on a Diet, by Paul Kramer, has set in motion a parade of horrified responses. The story (set for release in October 2011) chronicles the life of 14-year old Maggie, “extremely overweight and insecure” going on a diet and finding happiness as “a normal sized girl who becomes the school soccer star.” The trail of disgust on the Barnes & Noble website displays clear outrage: “incredulous,” “shame,” “smut,” and “simply outrageous.”
“Diet” is the thorny trigger word here. It’s a word that’s become more and more skewed, meaning less about an overall nutrition regimen and more about severe restriction. And then there is the title character, eyeing her imagined slimmer self in the mirror as she holds up a pink dress. The implicit message: a Cinderella-like transformation of overweight Maggie evolving into a slender butterfly and “soccer star.” The provocative premise of the story suggests a fairy tale unlocking for any young girl carrying extra weight—that, once she sheds it, voila! Ultimate popularity and success.
What the title and cover image fail to illustrate is the essence of self-acceptance and making healthy, long-lasting lifestyle choices. Childhood obesity rates in the United States are about 17 percent—that’s 12.5 million children between the ages of 2 to 19 who are obese. The rates have nearly tripled among children since 1980. While there should be concern over a growing health issue in this country, the presumably well-intentioned purpose of Maggie’s story has been lost, muddled in poor word choice and misguided messages.
Much of the controversy comes from experts and nutritionists who worry the book will spark eating disorders and poor self-image among young girls.
“[The book] is a dangerous way to talk with girls about weight,” says Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of the San Francisco-based About-Face. Through workshops and additional programs, the organization aims to reverse the established attitude about female body image.
There are healthy ways of relaying the message to help prevent poor body image and promote a healthy lifestyle. Suggesting a diet is not among them. Berger provides more hopeful and realistic options through reinforcing good behaviors surrounding food.
Maggie doesn’t need to go on a diet. If we could only tell her that she is young and growing and that her body will experience much more harm from yo-yo diets. Someone might want to tell Maggie that the thin vision smiling back at her in the mirror might not be so ideal either. Just as being overweight can put your body and health at risk, so can being too thin. When it comes to body type, not everyone has the genetic makeup to be super thin. So, you can have two kids of the same height stepping on the scale but showing different weights—and both will be right. A healthy weight for one person may not be the case for someone else.
“We, as a society, need to stop talking about weight in front of girls,” says Berger. She stresses the importance of differentiating between weight and health, and the need to address the serious “unhealth epidemic” overtaking the country. She also says we need to drop the harmful “when I’m thinner” mentality.
Maggie must learn how to maintain her healthy weight through lifestyle, not to dramatically change herself. What does need some changing, as Berger suggests, is our cultural attitude.