Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Children's Book 'Maggie Goes On a Diet' Raises Eyebrows

Few words in the English language get as confused, overused and generally abused as the word 'Diet'. The literal meaning of this 'evil' four letter word is simply whatever a person eats, or according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "habitual nourishment" or "the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason", for example, if they are ill. However, they obviously didn't forget that 'other' meaning of the word that nearly the whole world perceives it as, which is 'a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight'. So then, what kind of a diet is Maggie, a 14-year old overweight girl, "going on" in a new controversial children's book?

I know we're not supposed to judge books by their covers, but when it comes to children, I think that's where the major draw lies. The front cover of this particular book depicts an overweight little girl scoping out her reflection in the mirror while holding a dress in a much smaller size than her own against her full-figured body. Her reflection, a much thinner version of herself, smiles back at her. This image brings about uneasy feelings as it is reminiscent of the way that people with body dysmorphia or an eating disorder view themselves, only the reflection and the girl change places. The cover alone is enough to stir the pot on this controversial issue, never mind the actual content of the book!

In the book, kids at Maggie's school call her "fatty" and "chubby" so she decides to change the way she eats for the better. No starvation or crash dieting, just sensible eating. She cuts out junk and has a small treat here and there. She also starts getting much more physically active and joins the school's soccer team. That's an awful lot of changes and new responsibilities for a 14-year old to handle! Wait - where are Maggie's parents or her physician and what is their involvement or opinion of this?

Ultimately, Maggie succeeds in her weight loss goal, making her happier. No surprises there. But also, as a happy side-effect of her weight loss, Maggie gets popular at school. Great! What kind of a message is this sending to young girls?

Critics of the book as well as Amazon.com users have commented that this book promotes self-loathing and anorexia, particularly since the books are targeted at kids aged 4-12, depending on the bookstore. The author of the book, Paul M. Kramer, who by the way has no expertise whatsoever in children's nutrition or health, defended his creation by saying that he's not advocating to kids to go on a diet, and that this book is not about going on a diet. However, after having said that, he admitted that yes, as the title of the book suggests, Maggie did indeed go on a diet.

The truth of the matter is that no young girl should even know what the conventional sense of the word 'diet' means. So long as she follows a healthy diet and stays physically active, her weight will work itself out naturally. Kids have a lot of growing to do, and limiting their diets in any way is just asking for future health problems, either physically or psychologically, or both, in the case of eating disorders.

Sadly and unfortunately, parents tend to pass down their eating habits and food issues to their children. It's hard to hide one's relationship with food! I think we all know parents who are diet-obsessed, whose children end up the same way. It is important to realize the consequences of such behaviours and modify them as much as possible for the sake of the health of our future generations.

If a child truly does have a weight problem that poses risks to their health, this should be discussed with their physician and parents and a plan should be constructed to get the child to a healthy weight without putting them 'on a diet'. So while it may have worked for Maggie at 14, who knows how she ended up and what her relationship with food was at 16, 18 or 25!