Junkfood Science: Children’s stories with not so happy endings

November 08, 2008

Children’s stories with not so happy endings

This is why sound science matters and how stereotypes can hurt the most innocent.

How many children’s books out there have become venues to teach young people prejudice and reinforce stereotypes of others? How many children’s books are being published to scare young girls about their bodies and health, convince them that they have emotional problems, and that their self worth depends on what they look like? The fact this book was published at all, let alone applauded in mainstream media, is the saddest testament of all to the failure of science education.

The New York Times wrote glowingly of a book for little girls, ages 6 to 8 years of age, titled I Get So Hungry:

Floating doughnuts. Heaped trays of hot dogs and potato chips. Fields of mouthwatering sweets… Though its warm, appealing illustrations could send anyone with a sweet tooth running for the cookie jar, “I Get So Hungry” is otherwise a lovingly conceived and carefully written salvo in the battle against childhood obesity. Its heroine, Nikki, returns to school one fall to find that she’s acquired an unwelcome nickname: “Nikki Thicky.” Nikki’s mother brushes off her concern. “We come from a long line of big-boned women,” she says. Taunted by a schoolmate, Nikki only wants to eat more. She sneaks a few chips in class, then discovers that her new teacher, Mrs.Patterson — depicted as a vivacious obese woman — has a secret in common with her: “Mrs. Patterson pretends that she is looking in her purse for something. Then she coughs, and I see her shove a cookie in her mouth. I can hear Mrs. Patterson breathing when she gets up and walks to the blackboard.”

The newspaper reviewer proceeds to opine that half of the City’s public elementary school children are fat and that Black girls “have a greater tendency to be overweight than girls of other races.” She writes that this book addresses “some of the causes of this epidemic, especially family eating patterns and emotional eating.” Fat people must be overeating, according to the stereotype, so they need to distract themselves with other things so they “won’t feel hungry all the time.” This book has a lesson for all mother of fat children, according to the reviewer, who aren’t taking responsibility to help their children eat right. The fat mother and daughter in this children’s book are depicted negatively until they lose weight — “the happy ending.”

The New York Times review was just a hint of the popular stereotypes and misinformation about obesity in this book. The young fat girl in this story is pictured as a sad, lonely child, spending her time sitting alone on the couch, watching TV and mindlessly eating giant bowlfuls potato chips to deal with her emotions. Her mother is said to irresponsibly feed her a diet of fried foods, soda and junk food, with no fruits and vegetables. This gluttony and overeating is portrayed as the reason why she and her mother are both fat.

It gets more disturbing. All of the fat characters are described as gobbling food so fast they can barely taste what they’re eating. Her mother lies to the doctor about what the family eats and buys doughnuts to comfort her feelings of sadness. The girl’s fat teacher has a medical crisis, and a teacher whispers that it’s because she is fat. Frightened by her teacher’s illness, the little girl believes she needs to lose weight.

According to this story, as soon as the teacher and little girl stop eating “junkfood” and start drinking water and eating fruits and vegetables, and taking walks, they quickly lose lots of weight and become thin. The message being that it’s easy to lose weight and be thin, and being fat is your own fault.

Throughout the book, the little girl is teased and taunted about her weight and feels sad, but once she’s thin, her friends say that there’s no longer any reason to tease her. In other words, it also teaches kids that it’s okay to make fun of fat children.

Generations of naturally fat children have grown up being told they have emotional issues with food, overeat and eat bad foods, and get insufficient exercise and that’s why they’re fat. If they dare believe that they eat and behave no differently than other kids, rather than learn that the science confirms this for nearly all, they’re told they must be lying about what they eat and underestimating their sloth. They are told over and over again that their size is their own fault until they, too, come to believe it. Generations of naturally fat young people are scared that they’re going to die or get cancer, heart disease or diabetes if they eat bad foods or don’t lose weight. One only has to read the online forums of troubled young people struggling with weight and eating issues and food fears to see how many lives have been devastated by years of indoctrination and internalization of these stereotypes. The fact these stereotypes aren’t even recognized as such reveals how engrained weight stereotypes have become in our culture.

A children’s book writing similarly about children born with physical handicaps; or children with differences like big ears or noses, stuttering speech or unusual clothes would elicit intense public responses from advocacy groups. But there is no such advocacy for fat children.

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