Thursday, September 08, 2011

Maggie Goes on Diet. Sigh.

I was a very thin kid. So thin, that every year I was sent by the school doctor for further medical tests on anemia and such (together with the other skinny kid in the class). There was nothing wrong with me. I just found eating a real chore and avoided it whenever possible.

Then around the age of thirteen or fourteen all this changed. I didn't get fat. I started turning into a woman. But the change was frightening, and had I had the means to halt that change I would have done it. My brain was also only thirteen or fourteen, and I was used to my old body.

That is my personal background (pointing out that I belonged to one of the vulnerable groups for bad diet books) for reacting to that new self-published book, titled Maggie Goes on Diet by Paul M. Kramer:

A book intended to help children that’s due to be published this fall has already sparked a controversy in parenting and health circles. “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” (Aloha Publishers, October 2011) tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is overweight and unhappy. The girl diets, loses weight and finds success and popularity in school.
(Courtesy of Aloha Publishers)

The intended readership consists of children between the ages six and twelve!

All this has created a furor. The book has been written up in all sorts of high places, despite not being published yet, and the author has appeared on television. Health experts condemn the book, for obvious reasons, and several have pointed out the deleterious effects of telling young girls that if only their weight was different their lives would be ideal:
Author Paul Kramer has said his intent was to write a story with an important message to children about eating properly and maintaining a healthy physique, especially given the obesity epidemic. But his little book has landed with a loud thud. Experts have almost universally condemned it as sending the wrong message.
One of those critics is Karen Schachter, a Washington expert in the psychology of eating who runs Dishing With Your Daughter, a program of coaching, classes and workshops for mothers and daughters on healthy eating and body image.
I asked her why she thinks “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” and its encouragement of dieting, is misguided.
“I would not recommend a diet book for any young girl, especially one that promotes a message of thin equals popular; overweight equal lonely and unpopular. This is not how to teach girls (or anyone ) about taking care of their bodies, eating for health, or feeling good about themselves,” Schachter wrote me.


“First, at its most benign level, diets simply don’t work. Research suggests that something like 95 percent of people who actually lose weight on a diet, end up gaining it back within a couple of years or sooner. When the “diet cycle”(which is marked by feeling deprived, developing cravings, feeling guilty and ashamed, overeating, and then starting again with a new diet) begins in childhood, it can set the stage for a lifelong struggle with weight, chronic dieting, overeating, low self-esteem, and weight and food obsession. Many of the women I’ve worked with point to their first diet as the beginning of their chronic struggles with weight and eating.
Secondly, most girls already know how to diet. They are already well-versed in the “culture of skinny” and body hatred. According to The Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, 50 percent of 9-year-old girls and 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have already dieted, while 90 percent of junior and senior high school girls diet regularly. Another diet book is the last thing our girls need.
On a more concerning level, a diet in a vulnerable girl can trigger a dangerous eating disorder. Although we’ve seen a rise in rates of childhood obesity, the rates of eating disorders have also skyrocketed and are affecting younger and younger girls.”
Mmm. That everything would be perfect if only one reached perfect skinniness/bought-the-one-car-which-really-goes/got-the-ideal-job-or-partner is so seductive even for us adults! Imagine how wonderful it sounds for children.

I always remember a friend watching a television ad about a skin lotion and telling me that all those good-looking boys in the ad would ACTUALLY wait under her window if she used whatever the cream was! She was already a teenager then. Younger children are even more easy to fool.

That's part of the problem I see with all this. Another part has to do with the fact that young children are not in control over the foods they are served. The most they can do is to try to refuse some of them, and for them to do that in a nutritionally sound way (assuming they had the knowledge) can be almost impossible, depending on what their parents and schools offer them.

The obvious feminist problem with the book is the fairy-tale approach, the idea that IFONLY one were thin, then the prince would arrive and the kiss would happen and one would live happily ever after. Or, rather, that being thin is all that is required for a girl to be popular and successful. And that having a life-long battle with one's weight is a good use of all that energy which it will take.

This links to the wider cultural messages women still receive (including from each other) about the need for breast enhancement or other body work, about the need to be beautiful, about the need to be sexy. And let us not forget that these needs, or the need to diet, are not something women and girls just made up one night while bored.

There are real pressures towards treating the female body as something to be tamed, as something to be altered and as something to be displayed, because one does get rewarded for all that. Or perhaps it is that those women who refuse to tame their bodies get punished?

That Americans are getting more obese (in the medical sense) is the framework which makes books like these more likely to sell. The more I see of the obesity problem, the more I think of it as structural, having to do with wider changes than those created by individuals themselves, such as the unavailability of cheap-and-healthy fast food and the hurdles based on utility exercise.

Yet the solutions we are offered in diet books are purely individual ones. Even carefully written diet books for adults take those environmental and food-industry changes as given and place the whole onus on the dieter.

Back to this particular diet book: This snarky statement should make us pause a bit, because Mr. Kramer himself appears to have found the kiss from the publicity prince without dieting:
Many online critics have also pointed out that the author and self-publisher, Paul M. Kramer, has no expertise in child health (and isn’t exactly slim himself).
I also agree with this blogger:
I don't want you to buy Maggie Goes On A Diet. I shouldn't even be telling you about the book, because it appalls me to think of it getting in the hands of a parent or -- sigh -- a child. This as-yet unpublished, self-published book would go unnoticed except that people like me are frothing at the mouth and (the modern equivalent) blogging like mad about it.
But, it's out there. The media is delighted about the backlash, and I'm sure the author is delighted at the attention. So, let's talk about it.