When 'Weight Talk' Becomes Problematic

I am definitely a proponent of healthy eating and exercise. I believe that it is important to be healthy at whatever number you are on the scale.
09/01/2011 05:38 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2011

Perhaps you have heard about the children's book, "Maggie Goes on a Diet," by Paul Kramer. Perhaps you know nothing about it. Well, I am happy to fill you in. Maggie is a 14-year-old girl who is overweight. She is teased, loses weight, makes friends and gets the "perfect" happy ending. The book is written in verse, and in such, is not designed for a teen audience, but rather, a much younger demographic -- (think girls between the ages of 6 and 12). How do I know about this book seeing as it we be published in October? I have read it.

Last week I appeared on "Good Morning America" to talk about the unhealthy messages that the book sends to young people. I in no way believe that it's not important to be healthy. Rather, I expressed that this book winds up perpetuating the idea that what's outside trumps what's inside, and that is not the type of message that we should be giving to our children.

But alas, it appears as though I have been challenged. Some men (no women) have written to me to talk about how I should not be speaking about issues of weight, because I have never had a problem with it and obviously don't have friends who struggle with their weight. Wow, seems to me like judgments are definitely not limited to "fat bias." These men do not know me nor do they know my history with weight or the body shapes and struggles of my friends. All they see is what I look like now -- and in the case of the clip -- only from the shoulders up. Those are big assumptions to be making.

But that's not really the issue is it? I am definitely a proponent of healthy eating and exercise. I believe that it is important to be healthy at whatever number you are on the scale. (There is an entire movement devoted to this called Health At Every Size (HAES) -- check it out.)

Yet the overwhelming problem with Paul Kramer's book is that it sends all the wrong messages.

For example:

  1. Maggie's inspiration for becoming thin is a pair of bedazzled jeans.
  2. Maggie gets thin and immediately becomes popular.
  3. Maggie brings deodorant spray to a slumber party so that the bathroom doesn't smell after she uses it. (Think I'm kidding? I'm not.)
  4. Maggie doesn't seem to have parents. This means that there's no one telling Maggie how wonderful and special she is regardless of her size. That also means that there's no one encouraging her to be healthy or telling her that having a healthy diet is better than going on a diet.
  5. Last, seeing as this book is easily written for 6-year-olds, there is no reason that someone of that age should be familiar (and comfortable) with the concept of dieting.

But in case you would like to know what my critics have written to me, here are a few choice phrases:

It must be easy for you to side with the notion that a book like this is
wrong. Having obviously no problem with men or probably even relationships
in general. Perhaps you have never even had problems with weight or
appearance.

Perhaps this commenter has not read the piece I wrote recently on the many reconstructive jaw surgeries I had as a teenager and young adult. And haven't we learned by now that none of us can look at someone and know his or her relationship history? I mean really, think about all the gorgeous celebrities whose partners have cheated on them. Looks -- and stereotypically beautiful ones at that -- don't guarantee anything.

It makes me very angry to see skinny people talk about how weight is not an
issue when you need to look at your friends, I have no doubt that most of
them are not overweight, though most of America is. So please stop talking
about subjects you know nothing about.

Really? How can you look at me and know anything about my past? Or my friends? As we have long learned throughout history, our allies (regardless of what we have in common or not) are important to changing attitudes.

It is YOU who has perverted to concept of this book. It is YOU who has
likely hurt its ability to sell. And it is YOU who part of the blame should
go to for a fat America; seeing as how you like to stand in the way of
progress.

What I advocate for is a responsible America; for an America where it is possible to encourage health without simultaneously suggesting that appearance is the only thing that matters. Consider how easy it is for a physically beautiful girl to seem ugly if she is disrespectful, intolerant, bigoted or just plain mean.

Most importantly though, if we want to change fat bias -- and more than that -- if we want to change our overwhelming acceptance of the superficial, rather than the substantial, it's our job as parents to teach our children about the importance of our character and our contribution to the world. Health isn't just about what's outside; it's what's inside, too.