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Jean Fain, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W. Headshot

Children's Book Author and Filmmaker Weigh In on Kids' Dieting Controversy

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The war on childhood obesity has been waging for some time now, but the battle over the best plan of attack is coming to a head this week. Why now? Because the opposing forces have been mobilized by the war cries of two unlikely generals -- a filmmaker and a children's book author.

If you've somehow missed the war coverage, you may not know of Darryl Roberts, filmmaker of the documentary "America the Beautiful 2," or Paul Kramer, author of the children's book "Maggie Goes on A Diet."

At the heart of the firestorm is Kramer's book about a 14-year-old girl who goes on a diet. The criticism centers on the book's alleged thinner-is-happier message and the intended audience's vulnerability. The sing-song story may revolve around an adolescent girl, but Barnes & Noble's website puts its readers at six- to 12-year olds; and Amazon.com at four- to 8-year olds.

To protect young readers from eating disorders and other unintended consequences, concerned parents and healthcare experts are expressing their outrage anywhere they can -- from ABC and CNN to mommy blogs and Facebook. Writes one incensed critic on the Facebook page, "Boycott 'Maggie Goes On a Diet' by Paul M. Kramer": "What kind of message are you trying to send -- telling young girls that its ok to diet because it will make you popular. Like seriously, this is not right at all!" Writes another: "The sequel will be -- Maggie Gains Back the Weight, and then maybe Maggie Goes to the Hospital and Stays for a Long Time."

When Roberts heard that Kramer's book would be published mid-October, he wanted to counter the book's potentially harmful message with a healthier, happier one. To that end, he decided to release his film about America's unhealthy obsession with dieting this very same week.

I thought about doing what author Michelle May and other intuitive eating professionals have done -- publicly weighing in on the controversy. But my curiosity propelled me to do something completely different: visit the enemy camps and talk with both generals. To get to the bottom of the conflict, I put in a call to the opposing camps.

I'll admit it: I was biased by the book's cover and by the filmmaker's interview. I imagined the author to be the devil incarnate -- someone whose idea of fun is teasing, if not abusing, fat kids. Then I read the book and spoke with the author.

What follows are highlights from my two recent long-distance conversations. As you read both sets of answers to questions, I invite you to follow my lead. Do your best to set aside biases, postpone reactions and open your mind. After all is said and done, by all means, speak your mind. Judging from my own experience, the conclusion you ultimately reach may come as a complete surprise. In any event, relax, take a deep breath, let it out slowly and read on.

Darryl Roberts' films, including "America The Beautiful 2," tackle current social issues, from relationships and beauty to dieting and weight discrimination.

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Q. Why did you decide to make the film "America the Beautiful 2"?

A. I wanted to help people develop more acceptance and self-love. Not to base their self-worth on conforming to what society says you should be -- an ideal body-size or the BMI [body mass index] number. But to truly understand that you should become the best you can. And that can't be measured by a number.

Q. Did your decision have anything to do with your own eating issues?

A. I went to the doctor and found out I had high blood pressure and a few other things. The doctor basically told me I was at high risk for stroke and she tried to give me pills. When I learned one of the side effects is erectile dysfunction, I thought, "Nope, not doing that." So I bought a bike and started riding 12 miles a day; I put more broccoli and cauliflower in my meals. When I went back to the doctor's in 60 days I was in perfect health. She was dumbfounded when she learned I didn't take the pills. We have to be CEOs of our own health. If we give our health to doctors or the government, we fall prey to capitalist interests. Our health is too important not to take control of ourselves.

Q. I trust you've heard of Paul Kramer's "Maggie Goes on A Diet." What was your reaction?

A. Oh my goodness gracious. I haven't read the book, but I read [excerpted] quotes. The overriding message is if you're thin, life is better. That's absolutely the wrong message! You don't have to be thin to be healthy. You can be healthy at a wide range of sizes. Young girls have enough to worry about without adding the message that in order to conquer adversity, you have to diet. We have to protect our children. Everyone's looking at today's youth as advertising opportunities, and it's screwing them up. A 6-year-old shouldn't be reading a book about someone who lost weight, became popular and life became better.

Q. If you were to talk with Paul Kramer, what would you like to say to him?

A. I wonder if he has daughters. I'd like to ask him if he understands how damaging his message is for young girls.

Q. Because I write about self-compassion and diet, I always ask interview subjects what's self-compassion got to do with it, with your film?

A. Being compassionate to yourself is a precursor to loving yourself. When you love yourself, you become more accepting of yourself. That's really what I want to do with this film. See if with love, personal responsibility will come in naturally. Without telling you that you don't want to be sick, you don't want to abuse your body, you don't want to deny yourself, you just do it [take care of yourself] responsibly because you're taking care of your temple.

Q. Anything else you'd like to say?

A. I'd never dieted, but I did [go on a diet] in this movie to prove a point. Dieting is miserable. It's absolutely no way to live, and yet many people do it over and over again. The notion that the diet industry, the pharmaceutical industry or any industry is going to become compassionate toward us is never going to happen. We have to band together and start loving each other. We have to start getting beyond the physical and into deeper areas of relating to each other. Then those industries will go bankrupt.

Paul Kramer's books, including "Maggie Goes on A Diet," tackle common children's issues, including bullying, divorce, bed wetting and weight loss.

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Q. Why did you decide to write "Maggie Goes on A Diet"?

A. I see children and I know that they suffer. I want to let them know that they're not alone, that everyone has problems, that they can overcome their problems. It's just a question of learning what to do.

Q. Did your decision have anything to do with your own eating issues?

A. I've always had a problem with obesity. As a chubby kid, I ate a lot of junk food. I was teased a few times, but I was pretty strong. Like Maggie, I shrugged it off. I never went on a diet, but, at times, I tried to eat very little or only non-caloric foods. But, like you say, traditional diets don't work. Eating portions of tasteless food only leads to binging. In my book, Maggie didn't eat small portions. She ate healthier foods, as much as she wanted, and began to enjoy them.

Q. I trust you've heard of "America The Beautiful 2." What's your reaction to filmmaker Darryl Roberts releasing his documentary the same week as your book?

A. I think he's basically done it for the press. He hasn't read the book. If someone hasn't read the book, then they're guilty of judging the book by its cover. They're guilty of repeating innuendo, rumors, making rumors worse. I don't think thin kids are better [as Roberts has suggested]. My [16-year-old] son is perfectly sized, but if he were obese, I would love him just the same. I would try to help him understand how to get healthier, how not to be obese, but I wouldn't love him less.

Q. If you were to talk with Darryl Roberts, what would you like to say to him?

A. When I'm angered, I don't always think as clearly as I could when I think it through. [At this point,] I wouldn't want to waste my breath.

Q. Because I write about self-compassion and diet, I always ask interview subjects what's self-compassion got to do with it, with your book?

A. I'm trying to be kind to human kind. I'm part of human kind.

Q. Anything else you'd like to say?

A. I wish people would give Maggie some credit. She loves soccer. She works hard to run faster and faster as she shed her pounds. She should be given credit for her accomplishments, that she lost weight on her own without being pushed or embarrassed. Why should people have a problem that she made friends with kids who respected her for what she did? Why aren't people looking at this book from a positive outlook?

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After all was said and done, here's what I concluded: Kramer and Roberts are far from opposing forces. They're actually fighting the same fight. Hear me out: Kramer isn't the ardent dieter Roberts assumes him to be. In fact, both men are more committed than ever to eating healthier, exercising regularly and losing weight. They're also both committed to doing their part in winning the war on childhood obesity. Rather than assuming adversarial positions, a better strategy, as far-fetched as it may sound, might be joining forces. Or as Roberts suggests: banding together, loving one another.

Personally, I've decided to try not to take sides, to maintain my journalistic neutrality, at least for the duration of this blog. (When Ellen DeGeneres gets around to calling, I'll happily let loose then.) Taking a neutral position, I'm well aware, may open me to more criticism than taking a side. I'm going to risk that, keeping my opinions to myself in order to leave space for yours. I'm also going to suggest you take another deep breath, let it out slowly. Then join me in putting down your arms, stepping back and taking a wider view of the conflict. There's no harm in seeing what a difference compassion makes, or in listening to the other side.

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com. Got a thing or two to say about any of the above? Please share in the comments section. Hungry for more information? Read my previous blog "Can Dieters and Mindful Eaters Coexist?"

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