UD profs, students speak out about unpublished children’s diet book
Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 02:09
Author Paul Kramer recently sparked national controversy with the anticipated release of his new self-published book, "Maggie Goes on a Diet." Critics, including some university community members, say the book's message and target audience do not match up.
The children's book, to be released in October, is about an overweight 14-year-old girl named Maggie. She is constantly teased by her peers and unable to fully participate in sports, so she decides to lose weight in order to feel better about herself. The book follows her diet and workout regimen, culminating in a weight loss of 51 lbs. As a result, she scores the winning goal of her soccer game and ultimately becomes both confident and popular.
Amy Wilcoxon, a nutrition counselor at the university, has taken issue with Kramer's approach in promoting his message. Her main concern is that the word "diet" is in the title.
"We never try and associate that [word] with happiness and weight-loss," Wilcoxon says. "Why does it have to be diet talk?"
Wilcoxon, who focuses on general nutrition, diabetes and issues associated with eating at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, says the word "diet" has a totally different correlation in the hospital. She says doctors might encourage individuals to "diet" for health reasons, but society has twisted the definition into meaning strictly weight loss for aesthetic reasons.
Jaehee Jung, professor of fashion and apparel studies, says the word "diet" has specifically become associated with eating disorders.
"I feel like this title is the reflection on society," Jung says. "Certainly [the author] succeeded in getting attention."
But Kramer says he never intended to create such controversy and encourages people not to judge the book by its cover.
"‘Diet' to me is not a dirty word necessarily," Kramer says.
Kramer, owner of Aloha Publishers based in Maui, has published numerous children's books that touch on relevant issues like "Bullies Beware," "Booger Bob" and "Do Not Dread Wetting the Bed." He says Maggie could be a "fun role model" for obese children and could encourage them to eat healthier and exercise when they are capable of doing so. According to Kramer, their overall quality of life can change, as Maggie's did in the book.
Although Maggie is 14 in the book, Amazon has labeled the book appropriate for four to eight year-olds while Barnes & Noble decided it is appropriate for readers aged six to 12.
Kramer says the reason for this inconsistency in age groups is the formatting of the book—written in rhyming sequences and accompanied by pictures.
Wilcoxon says she's concerned that Kramer's message isn't appropriate for a picture book. Young children are very impressionable, and seeing Maggie's transformation through the pictures could make them think they should follow the same path.
Jung says the book's correlation between weight loss and perceived happiness exemplifies "risky behavior" at an age when physical maturity has not been reached. According to Jung, the younger the age of concern about body image, the sooner the threat of an eating disorder.
Sophomore Vicki Arthur, president of the National Eating Disorder Association Committee on campus, says she was disturbed by the book's targeted age group. She thinks discussing weight and body image issues is inappropriate for such a young age group.
"At 10 years old, a body image issue is not something you should be worried about," Arthur says.
For Arthur, the correlation is personal. Having dealt with her own body image issues in the past, she says she does not agree with the message that losing weight equals happiness.
"You'll never achieve true happiness if you're defining it by other's peoples' version of happiness," she says.
Childhood obesity is currently one of the nation's greatest health concerns, according to first lady Michelle Obama, who launched the "Let's Move!" initiative in February of 2010. The program emphasizes providing information to parents on healthy choices for their kids, serving healthier options in school cafeterias, ensuring families the accessibility to healthy food and promoting more active lifestyles for children. President Obama created the first Task Force on Childhood Obesity to enforce the "Let's Move!" campaign.
Lack of information and accessibility to healthy food are not the only obstacles that obese children face on a daily basis.
According to Jung, "Maggie Goes on a Diet" may be the least of the nation's problems in terms of delivering the wrong message to children. Peer groups, parent expectations, thousands of TV shows, advertisements and teen idols encourage weight-specific stereotypes for the younger generation, she says.
"We are giving attention to this one book, but there are messages everywhere," Jung says. "They're going to get the message no matter what."
But Wilcoxon says she doesn't see how the book could make matters worse. Diet and weight loss are hot topics and there's a niche in the market for them.
"I can't blame someone for making a living in something he has a passion for doing," she says.
Still, Wilcoxon suggests some ways to improve Kramer's book such as shifting the focus from losing weight to just being healthy, removing the word "diet" from the title and making Maggie popular the whole way through the story despite her weight. She says giving the book a more positive name such as "Eat Great, Feel Great" would be a significant improvement.
Kramer responds that critics should wait to read the book themselves before expressing an opinion. He says it's unfair that criticism is based on the book's front cover, a jarring illustration of overweight Maggie standing in front of a mirror and seeing a slimmer self.
"They are judging this book by the cover and we're taught not to do that," he says.