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Jane Ahlin, Published October 02 2011

Ahlin: Fat-kid stereotypes no help in checking obesity epidemic

In a “Good Morning America” interview, author Paul Kramer insisted he didn’t understand why his new children’s book, “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” has caused an uproar even before it’s been released. In his words, “My intentions were just to write a story … to have children feel better about themselves, discover a new way of eating, learn to do exercise, try to emulate Maggie and learn from Maggie’s experience.”

Because statistics confirm one out of every three children in America is obese, the message certainly sounds appropriate. Unfortunately, those who have read the book suggest what Kramer actually does is reinforce preconceived ideas about overweight children (fat kids are neither popular nor happy) while he gives bullies a pass (it may not be right, but fat kids should expect to be bullied). In other words, it doesn’t really matter that his intentions are good if the children who read the book get the wrong message.

Here’s the plot. Maggie is an obese, 14-year-old, friendless girl who is teased and bullied because of her weight. When she feels bad, she eats more. Figuring out that her life isn’t going to change unless she loses weight, she goes on a diet of healthy foods and starts to exercise every day. When she loses weight (51 pounds in eight months), she both becomes popular and proves to be a soccer star. Then, too, her grades go up … and she gets invited to a sleepover … and boys start to give her attention. Wow. She loses weight and the world is her oyster.

Obviously, there’s plenty wrong with that plot no matter the targeted age group. However, adding concern, Kramer’s book is a picture book that’s written in rhyme for young children – according to Amazon.com, 4- to 8-year olds. (The author said the target group is 6- to 12-year-olds; however, how many children in fourth grade or above read rhyming picture books?)

Whether he likes it or not, his audience is made up of little kids, preschool to second grade. At that age, kids should not be thinking about “fat” or “thin” and certainly not about “going on a diet” to be more popular, nor should girls be thinking about getting attention from boys: Kids should be thinking about playing and playing and playing – playing hard and playing every chance they get.

That said, there’s another reason “Maggie Goes on a Diet” rankles us. Pointing out what is wrong with the book doesn’t change the fact that we haven’t reversed the childhood obesity trend. We know society’s bad habits – calorie-laden fast food eaten on the run, pop and sugary drinks used as dietary staples, and in general, eating and drinking encouraged everywhere and any time of day or night. Add in the over-scheduling of children in organized activities that leaves them little time for play, and it’s not surprising that physical output doesn’t come close to caloric intake.

An expert speaking on “GMA” said that eating disorders in children under 12 have gone up 119 percent since 2000. That’s an appalling statistic. Children don’t see food as sustenance. Instead, it’s alternately their worst enemy and their best friend. And children’s eating patterns – really, the eating patterns for all society – mirror that abnormality.

In the “GMA” segment, a group of 5- and 6-year-old girls was shown a picture of several girls and asked if any of them stood out. Immediately, they pointed to one girl with a “big tummy.” One of the little girls called her “chubby-wubby,” and they all laughed, showing clearly how early society’s bias against fat people sets in.

Interestingly, the middle-aged author himself, is obese, but neither he nor the interviewer mentioned it. A polite overlook, no doubt, but another indicator of just how complex our nation’s obesity problem has become.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.