Junkfood Science: Teaching through storytelling

May 13, 2007

Teaching through storytelling

Recent news and research has been highlighting how children are being taught from preschool age to fear being fat and that it’s acceptable to hate fat children, but a story in today’s Telegraph boldly called children’s authors on being part of the problem.

Dr. Jean Webb, Ph.D., joint director of the Children's Literature, Literacy and Creativity Centre at the University of Worcester, spoke out against the stereotypes in children’s literature that are fueling bullying and discrimination of fat children, as well as teaching children prejudice. Her research is focused on the content in children’s literature and the cultural messages they teach.

Authors 'making fat children bully targets'

Children's books are “demonising" overweight pupils by portraying fat characters as spoilt, greedy and mean, according to an academic. Popular stories, including the Harry Potter series, may be fuelling bullying of obese children in schools, it is claimed.

Professor Jean Webb, from the children's literature research centre at Worcester University, called for more balance in the way fat youngsters are represented. She said that Dudley Dursley, the spoilt and pampered schoolboy who picks on Harry Potter in J K Rowling's best-selling books, was typical of the way pupils are stereotyped. "Dudley is a fat little rotter and his fatness is presented as a moral failing," she said.

In other books, such as Fat Boy Swim, by Catherine Forde, and Staying Fat, by Sarah Byrnes, characters only become popular when they lose weight, said Prof Webb. One of the most reviled fat characters in children's books is Billy Bunter, Frank Richards's cake-loving anti-hero from Greyfriars school. Prof Webb told the Times Educational Supplement: “It's a delicate area and you must not marginalise particular groups."

Louise Burfitt-Dons, the director of Act Against Bullying, said: "It would be nice to see stories that lead people to see the individuality in one another rather than the stereotypes."

As we’ve seen, prejudice against fat children is a learned behavior and has worsened significantly over recent decades. Little kids as young as three say they wouldn’t want a fat child as a friend, and think being fat is worse than being crippled, having amputated limbs or facial deformities.

Children’s literature not only portrays fat children in negative ways, it’s also filled with examples of giving theatening messages to children that their improper behavior could make them "hideously" fat. These also fuel stereotypes of fat children as being bad while disregarding the scientific evidence that childhood obesity, or ailments like “high” blood pressure, is not determined by a child’s diet or behavior. A disturbing example was recently reported in the Home News Tribune:

A fable for kids of the fast-food nation

When you eat too many burgers — and sneak your vegetables into the trash when your mom isn't looking — something's gotta give. For Benny Buttons, the main character of Diane Morgan's newly released children's book, “Benny's Burgeritis," the consequence of eating too many burgers is that one morning, he wakes up to find that his head has turned into one.

For the millions of American children suffering from obesity, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments related to improper nutrition, the consequences of not eating right can limit their futures in other, realistic ways, said Morgan, a resident of Piscataway who teaches fourth grade at Von E. Mauger School in Middlesex. For 15 years, Morgan's family owned and ran ...two health food stores...

“I want children to take responsibility for their habits."

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