The "Maggie Goes on a Diet" book cover. (Aloha Publishers)
An upcoming children's book with the seemingly noninflammatory title "Maggie Goes on a Diet" is causing a firestorm of protest.
According to the book's description on Amazon.com, "This inspiring story is about a 14-year-old who goes on a diet and is transformed from being overweight and insecure to a normal sized teen who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self-image."
You'd think that with one-third of American kids overweight or obese, and children experiencing unprecedented weight-related health problems including diabetes, a book about a girl losing weight and gaining self-esteem would be welcomed. Guess again.
Critics and reviewers are blasting the book, which has not been released and which almost no one (including myself or the experts quoted here) have fully read. It's being called horrible, irresponsible, and dangerous.
Joanne Ikeda, a Nutritionist Emeritus in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, criticized the book on "Good Morning America" on several levels. "Overweight children should not lose weight," Ikeda told Discovery News. "Instead, they should grow into their weight. Putting a child on a calorie restricted diet can stunt growth and one takes the risk of ending up with a short, fatter child!"
Part of the reason that the book is causing such a stir is that there is a lot of confusion about what the word "diet" means. Many people assume the word means a calorie-restrictive, semi-starvation regimen. For some, putting a teenage girl — even an overweight one — on a diet is tantamount to child abuse, if not an invitation to an eating disorder.
Yet that's not how doctors and nutritionists use the word diet, as in the time-tested advice that "the best way to lose weight is through diet and exercise." The primary definition of "diet," according to the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is "food and drink regularly provided or consumed; the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person for a specific reason." That is the main definition; it's not starvation, it's actively choosing healthier foods and portions over unhealthier ones — usually for weight loss.
To be fair, Ikeda had not seen the book, and it's not clear that what Maggie eats in the book constitutes the calorie-restrictive diet she described.
Maggie lost weight, according to ABC News reporter Andrea Canning (who did read the book), "by eating healthier foods like oatmeal, fruits, and exercising more." Maggie doesn't go on a carrot-a-day starvation diet but instead an apparently healthy, sensible one that includes making healthier choices. The goal of weight loss is not to be thin, but to be healthy.
Sexologist and relationship expert Logan Levkoff expressed different concerns about the book in the same "Good Morning America" piece: "There's no question that books like this that teach our kids to focus on what's outside… And to suggest to them that popularity comes with being thin, this is the wrong message to send to our kids."
This is a tricky situation, because whether we as parents and educators like it or not, the "wrong message" is the truth.
Research on fat bias is very clear: thinness is widely associated with attractiveness and popularity. Decades of studies show that people who are thinner are judged overall more intelligent, more likeable, more attractive, more capable, and more honest than overweight or obese people.
The fact that such bias exists may be unfair, but pretending that it's not real (or not a part of the discrimination experienced by overweight people) doesn't fool kids, and doesn't make the problem go away.
Ikeda suggested to Discovery News that "the kids who tease Maggie in the book [should be] called before the school principal along with their parents assigned to write an essay on how kids come in all sizes and shapes, and deserve respect no matter what size and shape they happen to be."
Levkoff echoes this concern, and surely both are correct that the root of the teasing problem lies not with Maggie (or her weight) but instead with the bullies.
But that's really a separate issue; the premise of Kramer's book is a girl losing weight and feeling better about herself, not exploring issues of anti-fat bias and bullying. Maggie wants to lose weight for herself, not to look perfect, nor like a Barbie or a supermodel. She's an overweight teenager who wants to lose weight to be healthier, to feel better about herself, and play soccer.
"Maggie Goes on a Diet" is, of course, only one of many pop culture items that parents and some experts claim (or fear) will lead to a rise in anorexia or other eating disorders.
Everything from Barbie dolls to TV shows to teen magazines and fashion advertising have been blamed over the years. Even the film "Black Swan" was attacked by critics who were concerned that it would lead to a surge in eating disorders among female audiences.
All this concern is likely a tempest in a teapot. Maggie is, after all, merely an orange-haired character in a 44-page rhyming kids book that won't be published for months. She's not likely to become an influential figure in anyone's life, nor a positive or negative role model. Parents, peers, and teachers exert far greater influence on a child's health and lifestyle than a kid's book.
The concern over the book's potential influence also ignores that fact that kids in the book's recommended age range, 4 to 8 years old, don't create their own lifestyles — they don't choose, buy, or prepare their own food, or set their own schedules or activities. It doesn't matter if a character in their favorite book eats broccoli instead of hamburgers, or spends two hours exercising instead of watching TV.
Their lives and diets are controlled by responsible adults, who will hopefully make decisions based upon medical advice and common sense instead of a kids book.