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“Maggie Goes On a Diet,” not so surprising, part of a continuum…

Posted by on Aug 25, 2011 in Blog Posts | 9 comments

I have seen a lot of (deserved IMHO) outrage to the yet-to-be-released “Maggie Goes on A Diet.” It is interesting. It is good (the outrage, that is…)

What is curious to me is that people seem to be surprised the book is out there, though it does seem to lack a certain finesse or savvy. Most people (even those who endorse calorie restriction for kids) know not to use the “D”-word. Would there be such an outcry if the title said, “Maggie Gets ‘Healthy’?” (I am not saying what she does is healthy, but commenting on how the messaging matters…)

Which gets me to a book I looked at a few years ago, called “I Get so Hungry.” It is a similar book in that it is written for children, the subject is a young girl who is fat (therefor unhealthy) who makes changes in her eating and exercise and loses weight, and stops getting teased, and so it’s a happy ending-right? Is the message kids get from this book all that different from ‘Maggie Goes on a Diet?’ Is it less harmful?

I remember Ellyn’s insightful, knowledgeable and touching review of “I Get so Hungry” on Amazon, which she gave me permission to post here. (She hits every point, and I could not say it better, so I won’t even try…)

Reinforces bigotry and makes children feel worse, not better, November 20, 2008

Bebe Moore Campbell’s heart was in the right place when she wrote this book, “to touch kids and parents and help them make changes in their lives.” It is too bad that this final of her writings doesn’t represent the thoughtfulness and careful research of her other work. According to the author, Nikki and her teacher, Mrs. Patterson, are gluttons–they load up on the wrong foods and fail to eat the right foods. Nikki’s mother is even worse–not only is she a glutton, she encourages her daughter to be one, too. Nikki and Mrs. Patterson become thin when they stop being gluttons. This book demonstrates common attitudes: people are fat because they eat too much; anyone can become thin if they try; and everyone (and her mother) should be willing to try. Research supports none of it. Body weight is most strongly determined by genetics. Those who try to overcome their genetic endowment by dieting get fatter, not thinner, even when they diet by eating “good food,” or “the right things,” as Nikki and her teacher do. Nikki’s and Mrs. Patterson’s weight loss is extremely unusual. So unusual, in fact, that it is simply cruel to lead the child reader and her parents to believe that problems with peers will be resolved by losing weight. Nikki’s mother is represented as not caring what she feeds Nikki. Only a minority of parents of children of size simply don’t care–about the same percentage as the population as a whole. Given all these flaws, rather than achieving the author’s goals, it is more likely that this book will reinforce the bigotry that fat children and their parents have to deal with and make them feel worse, not better. It’s too bad–Campbell had a good thing going by making Nikki popular and talented. I wonder why she didn’t take Nikki one step further by having her stand up to her tormentor, thereby showing how successful she could be without having to be skinny? To read that book, check out Fat, Fat, Rosemarie by Lisa Passen. Ellyn Satter, author, Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.

I also liked this line from another review:

“I liked that it encouraged kids to eat healthy foods and exercise in ways the feel good to them, but it sets unrealistic expectations around the possibility of long-term weight loss. The most obnoxious aspect of the book is that the bully stops tormenting the girl because *she* changes–not him–setting up bullying as a sort of reverse inspirational technique.”

Those of you who were outraged by MGOD, are you similarly angered by “I Get So Hungry?” Do you see a connection? One is more extreme, less nuanced perhaps, but both perpetuate harmful misconceptions, reinforce body dissatisfaction, offer false promise of weight loss etc. I would guess that many in the medical and public health fields would decry MGOD but would also heartily recommend IGSH…

What do you think?

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  1. Melinda Beasi

    This article really struck a chord with me. As someone who has struggled endlessly with overweight (beginning as a pre-teen), there is almost nothing I find less helpful or more offensive than the widely-held view that fat people are junk-eating gluttons whose weight problems could be easily solved if they only had the right information and a little willpower. This is a thin person’s perspective on obesity, and has little connection to the realities that obese children and adults face day-to-day. To hand this kind of misleading narrative to children seems to me not only irresponsible but cruel.

    I was similarly outraged by a 4-volume manga series I read recently, “Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution,” which is aimed at teen girls, and portrays a sweet (if dim-witted) overweight teen who loses weight thanks to encouragement from a bunch of cute neighbor boys who teach her the importance of exercise and staying away from cookies. Though it doesn’t claim to be much more than entertainment (unlike these, which I assume are marketed as serious inspirational books), the lack of emotional resonance and distance from reality for actual overweight kids is the same.

    • katja

      Absolutely. And, don’t you think that if the message is, “You wouldn’t be fat if you weren’t so lazy and stupid/indulgent about the wrong foods” just a free pass for bullying?

      • Melinda Beasi

        Definitely, since it implies that the child is overweight due to personality defects–things she should be ashamed of/shamed for.

        And this attitude about obesity is so widely-held and so often expressed in just about every medium, even the bully is probably receiving mixed messages from adults. Adults may be telling him/her that bullying is wrong, while still reinforcing the harmful messages behind it.

  2. Jenny Islander

    “I Get So Hungry.”

    Yes, because I only get square meals at school because we’re so damn poor, so I fill up whenever I can–under the disapproving eyes of the Powers That Be. Bad, bad little me!

    Yes, because the only food we can afford to eat at home is the super-starchy processed stuff that doesn’t really fill a person up for very long. We can’t even find a fresh potato in its jacket or a bunch of bananas at any store we can reach within feasible travel distance. Bad, bad little me!

    Yes, because I’m getting ready for a growth spurt or puberty or both, so I feel the urge to eat more than is ladylike and my body is building up fat reserves in preparation for the hard work ahead. Bad, bad little me!

    RRRRRRGH. If she gets so hungry–FEED HER FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

  3. fatfairy

    If you want to help children, make them smoke. They will be thinner, and they won’t cost the system as much money because they’ll die younger. That was pure sarcasm.
    Seriously, love your version.It does no good to let kids be bullied, and making kids hate themselves or telling them “you need to change” to stop abuse is pure evil. Damage a kid that way, and no one may ever know what that child, undamaged, might have done, or who they might have become.

  4. AcceptanceWoman

    As a kid who was labeled overweight, and put on an honest to goodness diet from an RD (who was really nice) when I was 10 years old, it pains me to see the mistakes of the past repeated.
    Here’s the story arc of a book that the young me would have benefited from:

    Young girl is teased, not necessarily about her weight, but her weight makes her a target for teasing. This is also reinforced at home, that there’s something wrong with her because of her weight. She’s sad about it. Her friends notice that she’s sad, and reassure her. Her pediatrician refers her to a RD, LCSW who applies Ellyn Satter’s teachings, who is fat and beautiful, and the sessions end up being more therapy than dietary instruction. Some changes are made at home to the HOW of eating, and she finds ways to move that feel good and are enjoyable. She doesn’t lose weight. Over time, she becomes more confident in her body, and herself, and she and her friends stand up to the kids doing the teasing. She tells her family members how it makes her feel when they make comments about her size, and they truly listen. The book ends with her looking no different than she did at the beginning, except she is smiling and happy.

    So, maybe that’s what we need to do, put out a book like that.

    What I wish my young self knew was that it all turned out okay for me. Not easy, but the future I had difficulty imagining that revolved around being “thin and beautiful” (I didn’t flesh out much more detail than that) was false. The real future I realized was that in staying true to my authentic self, I have the things I need, and that my beauty shines through. All the other stuff about being thin and beautiful was really just clutter that needed to be cleared out of the way, and it’s no wonder why I held onto it. But it wasn’t essential.

  5. April D

    I think you’ve really hit a nail on the head. How we frame “healthy” versus “diet” does play a huge role in the perception of both books. It is that very hesitancy to use that dreaded “diet” word that made WW change its slogan to reflect that they a diet; no they are a LIFESTYLE. Perhaps the only good thing is that folks DO begin to recognize the harm of “diets”. But when this only serves to get said diets to rebrand themselves as “lifestyles” it pushes the issue under the carpet again for a bit so I think,as you point out, we need to remain as outraged against IGSH as we are against MGOD to pull the issue to light and remind folks “Yeah, it isn’t all magically OK when you stop calling it a diet and call it “lifestyle changes”.

    • katja

      yes, like the “non-diet” website that says, “This is not a diet, you just have to eat less!” (I kid you not…)