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September 7, 2011

Maggie Goes On A Diet

There is a new, self-published children's book due out in mid-October that tries to tackle the issue of childhood obesity. It tries... and fails... miserably... and painfully.

Maggie Goes on A DietWe first learned of this book on ONTD and could barely believe our eyes. The book Maggie Goes On A Diet tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who goes on a diet and is transformed from being extremely overweight and insecure to a "normal sized girl" who becomes the school soccer star.

The author, Paul M. Kramer, has self-published a handful of books on various issues, including Bullies Beware!, Do Not Dread Wetting the Bed and Divorce Stinks! but this time he has really just messed it up. There are so many things wrong with this book.  

First of all, the title is extremely problematic. "Diet" has a very negative connotation, as it often refers to weight management, rather than healthy eating. Some diets can be dangerous to your health and weight fluctuations as a result of yo-yo dieting can be dangerous and actually be detrimental to your weight loss goals. Young children should not be dieting at all. Pediatricians do not recommend that prepubescent children - even those who are overweight - cut calories, as they run the risk of stunting their growth. Some researchers have suggested that dieting among teenage girls actually leads to a greater risk of them being overweight in the future.  

While the character in the book is 14, last month Barnes & Noble had listed the book as being for young readers age 6-to-12 and Amazon said 4-to-8 [via ABC]. Apparently both sites have now edited the recommendations to age 8 and up, but we still feel that is too young. Eight year olds should not be dieting! Therefore they have no need for role models who diet.

Healthy eating and exercise may help someone lose weight, not everyone is destined to have the same body type. Some people will always be bigger or smaller than others, regardless of how healthy they eat and how much they exercise. When people have unrealistic goals that aren't met by eating well and exercise, they may turn to unhealthy methods of weight loss.

The book probably should have been called "Maggie Eats Healthy" or "Maggie Gets Healthy" instead of "Maggie Goes On A Diet". But the title isn't the only problem. The plot itself is also unrealistic, as are Kramer's goals for the book.  

"My intentions were just to write a story to entice and 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," he told Good Morning America. He continued, "kids can be mean and she has decided to do something about it, to take things into her own hands, try to change her own life, try to make herself healthy by exercising. She does want to look better. She does want to feel better and she does not want to be teased."

Not only are childhood diets unhealthy and counterproductive, but according to weight-loss expert Joanne Ikeda, co-founding director of the University of California at Berkley's Center on Weight and Health, pointing out imperfections in a child's body does not empower them to adopt good eating habits. On the contrary, it actually decreases their body image which ups their risk for unhealthy behavior. "Body dissatisfaction is a major risk for eating disorders in children all the way up through adulthood," she said.

Also, the happily-skinny-ever-after message is misleading. Kramer implies that being thin equals being happy, having self esteem and not being teased, but this just isn't always the case. Nor is it impossible to be happy and feel good about yourself if you don't lose weight. In the book, Maggie becomes popular after losing weight and her bullies become her friends. (Why oh why would she want to be friends with jerks who used to mock her and only like her now that she lost weight?) 

It approaches the issue of teasing and bullying from the wrong direction, by blaming the victim for being too different. It sends the message that if people are teasing you, then the problem is you. You need to change yourself to be more like everyone else. You need to lose weight. No, how about the problem is that these kids are being assholes? Rather than forcing the victim to change, a better approach to bullying prevention is to address the behavior of the bullies. Both Maggie and the kids teasing her about her weight, need to learn the lesson that it's okay to be different.

Maggie's boost in confidence and self esteem shouldn't be dependent on her weight loss. The goal should be about getting healthy and feeling better physically. But she should learn to feel good about herself regardless of her weight. Kramer's book sends the message that in order to be happy, you need to change yourself when the message should be about self acceptance.

Kramer has defended the book, asking that people not judge a book by its cover. But how can we not? Even the cover sends the wrong message. If the actual goal of the book is to teach kids to make healthy choices - like eating right and exercising - then shouldn't the goal be about feeling better and having fewer health issues? That is not what is portrayed on the cover. Instead, we see Maggie looking in the mirror, holding a pink party dress that is a few sizes too small... and envisioning herself thinner (and therefore, more stereotypically "beautiful" by our society). The focus is on image and size, not health.

I'm sure that Kramer meant well and hoped this book would help kids. He probably sees himself amongst the likes of Michelle Obama and the Let's Move! campaign against childhood obesity. But he's doing it wrong.  He clearly didn't do any research on the subject before writing this book.

Just so we can end this on a funny note (well, funny and sad)... here are a sampling of the "tags" that Amazon users gave this book:


At least we know we're not alone on this one.


Renee said...

I love that the tags show that at least some people get it.

kbwriting said...

I could not agree with you more. This is a pet peeve of mine and I could write an entire article on this subject.
I have three kids. Two are tall and thin, and one is average. He is also the middle child, but let's not go there. I was looking at him as he put his pajamas on the other night, and noticed his 'love handles'. I did not mention it to him, but realized that at some point, his thinner sister (who is younger) will surpass him in height. He clearly takes after my side of the family.

The point is that if you put these two kids side-by-side, he weighs more (although a healthy weight), but he eats carefully. He stops when he's full. He prefers carrots and apples to brownies. His sister could not be more different. She eats everything in sight. And will often climb over the refrigerator (literally) to sneak snacks from the cupboard that are out of sight. She's much smaller than he. If he went on a diet like Maggie (assuming he even knew what a diet was), he would never be as small as his sister. Therein lies the problem of books like this.

I agree that I'm sure the author meant well judging by his other books, but giving the bullies a way out bothers me as much as the concept of childhood dieting. There is no place for victim blaming. Anywhere.

And these eating stereotypes go both ways. When my oldest was young, we were on WIC. He was underweight, taking after my husband's side of the family (tall & thin). The nutritionist recommended adding cheese sauce to broccoli when my son already ate broccoli on its own. Adding calories is one thing. Adding bad calories and bad eating habits are encouraging weight gain where it's not needed, and is just as problematic as the opposite.

Melissa said...


Sabrina said...

I think he meant well, but like you I feel as though he does not have a clue. This book sends so many wrong messages. The one that really got me pissed was the thought that losing weight makes an individual happy.

There are fully grown adults who have this screwed up mentality. Why on earth would anyone want to place these thoughts into the minds of children?