I was recently enjoying a one-year-old’s birthday party when I stumbled upon a copy of one of her books: ‘The Large Family – A Piece Of Cake’. An innocent purchase and a much loved classic children’s book, first published in 1989. A conversation with most of my friends who interacted with it will tell you that it was loved and adored in their childhood, and in no way contributed to an unhealthy relationship with food and weight – in fact, to this day, they can barely remember it. That is, despite the books’ principle storyline of restriction, dieting, fat-shaming and eventual conclusion of secret binge eating.
But the problem is that this is no longer 1989. Our context of food and weight behaviour is wholly different. Therefore our blasé attitude to assume that something which was once not harmful to us; must not be harmful to our children is at best wrong, and at worst damaging.
In a 2015 study, the child advocacy group, Common Sense Media, found that 80% of 10-year old girls had been on a diet, with half of girls and a third of boys aged 6-8 wanting thinner bodies. As far back as 2000, studies have shown one third of 5-year olds reporting some degree of dietary restraint and more recently, printed research from 2017 has shown that 30-60% of 5-year olds from the United States comprehend dieting as a method to lose weight. NHS data for 2015-2016 shows that children aged 5 and under are admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder; and the highest prevalence of admissions through the lifetime are occurring for children aged 10-14 and aged 15-19 years.
Research has shown us that children are up to twice as likely to illicit dieting ideas from maternal influence, and that most children will hold the same beliefs about food restriction as their mothers. With that said, it in no-way puts the cause of developing an eating disorder at the feet of parents. We know these are highly complex, multifaceted illnesses where there can be no one defining cause and that parents are a helpful part of the solution. Though it does show us the impact of our own dieting culture on our next generation and that can be powerful knowledge to hold. Research also demonstrates a well identified link between the toxic impact of media influence and body image disturbance with eating dysfunctions. Media including the influence of print and text, of which our innocent ‘children’s books’, are a part. At any age.
Therefore should we be continuing to minimise the potential damaging impact of a book with lines such as:
“I’m Fat” Said Mrs Large
“We must all go on a diet” said Mrs Large. “No more cakes. No more biscuits. No more crisps. No more sitting around all day. From now on, it’s healthy living.”
“You’re off for a nice healthy jog around the park, followed by your tea – a delicious sardine with grated carrot”
“We’re not getting any thinner, dear”
Everyone kept thinking about the cake. “I can’t stand it any more” she said to herself “I must have a piece of that cake”.
Whilst in some ways the book can suggest subliminal messages that dieting and restriction make you unhappy, it seems that the over-riding sentiment is that cake will make you fat, and that if you are not able to resist such foods, you are simply destined to be just that: fat. Crucially, where ‘fat’ is damagingly seen as a something one should change. The book is utterly riddled with dieting messages, which perpetuates myths of good and bad foods, and body dissatisfaction.
Surely there are better ways in which we can discuss nutrition and promote health and body acceptance with our young people in 2018. Surely we now know that it really is never too early to avoid unhealthful dieting messages when faced with annual increases in eating disorders, particularly amongst children. Perhaps its’ time that we accepted that 1989, the year that continued to promote the horrendous and deeply offensive Golliwog on Jam Jars, didn’t make all the best choices for our educated, and aware minds of today. Perhaps we’re not being ‘millennial snowflakes’ when we recognise the time for this publication is over.
Perhaps we should all be siding with the 56% of people leaving 1*reviews on Amazon and call for this publication to stay confined to our pasts. However much we used to love it ourselves. Because perhaps this is isn’t ‘PC gone mad’ as one 5* reviewer put it in response to the surrounding rhetoric, perhaps instead this is about public health and not contributing to causes of the psychiatric illness which kills the most people of all.