Will a story about dieting help your overweight child?

If I had a definitive (and easy) solution to
the dilemma of overweight children, I might well be a millionaire. As it is, life tends to be a
little more difficult and complex. Weight-wise, my children are all currently
healthy, but some of them have, over the years, struggled with issues on both
ends of the spectrum, from borderline obesity to almost-anorexic. It was our
family’s experience that early intervention, lots of patience, and some
soul-searching on the parents’ part followed by proactive changes helped us
overcome our problems in this area.

In recent years, childhood obesity has
become a cause célèbre. Countless experts have (if you’ll pardon the
expression) weighed in, including doctors, nutritionists, educators, politicians,
authors, even First Lady Michelle Obama.

A children’s novel on this theme, however, has
come under criticism even before it is published (October). Maggie Goes on a Diet tells of the story of a 14-year old who goes on a diet
and becomes the school football star.

I sympathize with the author, Paul M. Kramer,
who is himself a parent and claims a passion for addressing issues that affect
today’s children. I don’t doubt that he truly desires to help children burdened
by obesity. Moreover, I wouldn’t presume to critique a book that I have not
read, but it seems to have a few basic flaws (not the least of which is an unappealing
cover, but then I have never been a fan of anime-type cartoon illustration).

Others have not been so hesitant. A child psychiatrist specialising in eating
disorders told the Sydney Morning Herald that the book, aimed at children 6
years and up (“for parents to read with their children”), sends the wrong

"Children in that age bracket are very black and white
and literal in the way they understand things, so they can't look behind the
message," he said.

"The blurb from the book basically equates being
overweight with being unpopular, unsuccessful and lacking a societal worth,
whereas being slim is associated with being successful.


Dr Sloan Madden says the growing focus on negative messages
about being overweight or obese has seen the rate of eating disorders among
children increase.


"At the [Sydney] Children's Hospital in the last 10
years, we now admit three times the number of children," he said.


The slim=successful attitude is longstanding
and well-entrenched; the argument is that Mr Kramer shouldn’t be reinforcing
it. If an overweight child wants a dose of low self esteem, all he has to do is
wander too near the bullies in school or turn on the TV. The overweight people
in movies and sitcoms are usually losers or buffoons. However, obesity is not
the cause of poor self-worth, but a symptom thereof.

The head of a charity supporting sufferers
of eating disorders goes further, calling the book dangerous and irresponsible.


"To say that it's inspiring for a
14-year-old to go on a diet ... this age is when young girls are at their most
impressionable, it is also the peak time for them to develop an eating
disorder," Ms Morgan said.


Her Butterfly Foundation promotes a
positive image of self-worth based on a person's attributes and skills, not
based on weight or shape. I’ll go one further and suggest that’s still short of
the mark. What about the kids who feel they don’t have the right “attributes
and skills”?

Parents, educators and other adult role
models need to communicate to children that they are valued for who they are,
and the very fact that they exist. This is proving to be a tough sell in a culture
that not only glorifies beauty, fame, wealth and success, but advocates the
termination of unborn children with mental disabilities, easily-corrected
cosmetic flaws (such as cleft lip/palate), or who simply were conceived at the
wrong time. But I digress. There are societal causes but we also need to look
much closer to home.

It is no coincidence that most children who
struggle with obesity or eating disorders have one or more parents with similar
problems. I believe it’s rare to find obese children in homes where both
parents are in the habit of serving/eating nutritious food and being active. In
other words, the solution is an all-encompassing commitment to a healthy
lifestyle, which is not reflected in Mr. Kramer’s lacklustre choice of title: Maggie Goes on a Diet.

In fact, the concept of “dieting” has been
all but discredited, except perhaps among the most short-sighted and delusional
of (overweight) tabloid readers. The word has come to imply temporary changes
(including radical deprivation) in pursuit of a quick fix. Granted, the title “Maggie
Embarks on a Permanent Healthy Lifestyle Change with the Enthusiastic Support
of Her Parents” is a tad more cumbersome, but it might come closer to
describing what is necessary for success.

Kudos to Mr Kramer for being a dad trying
to make a difference, but maybe it’s Mom and Dad who should look in the mirror
--to size up their lifestyle and not only their figures -- rather than Maggie.


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