No more cakes. No more biscuits. No more crisps.

Could an ‘innocent’ children’s book be contributing to the eating disorders epidemic?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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.

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  • I am a bit scared about commenting about this because I am sure to offend someone, but, as a teacher and a mother, I have read and used this book probably hundreds of times. Every time, the children fall about laughing because, sophisticated little humans as they are, they can see the humour – which is that the characters are all elephants and no matter what they do they will always be large, as elephants are meant to be!!!
    My own children found the book hilarious, and my sister was suffering from anorexia at the time, so as a family we were hyper vigilant about subliminal messages.
    Maybe the secret is to read the book and discuss whether cakes make you fat with the children? As a learning tool, imagine how powerful that could be…….
    I adore Jill Murphy’s books but maybe we need to give children credit for their understanding. Sadly, not all children have the support of their families but then I suspect those children won’t be reading the book by themselves…….

    • I love the sentiment in your final sentence AnnH. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and reply! Really good to see another view point – one I’m sure will be shared by many others.
      A xx

    • I think that ‘s a really valid sentiment and I know it’s shared by many. I kind of knew this one could stir debate. I found amazon interesting – it split between 1* and 5* – there’s little middle ground in feeling towards this book it seems. I appreciate your view and it’s an interesting perspective. I still feel unchanged in how damaging I find it, but thank you for sharing your opinion on this too.

  • Such a important and interesting feature Clare. As the mother of two girls and someone who myself grew up being surrounded by unhealthy messages about food, this is something I feel very strongly about. My husband and I work very hard NOT to make body image a big issue in our house. We have always chosen to use body confident language around our two girls and encouraged them to believe in their strong and capable bodies and minds. And to not feel guilty about enjoying cake! As you say, everything in moderation #headsoffforevenmorehomemadedateslice

  • Brilliant Claire! Although I also agree with AnnH too! It’s all how it’s interpreted.

    I have two girls 7&10 and they were discussing how fat their legs were a year or so ago….. wow really! So I took a moment to discuss this with them! They r not fat and it was my youngest freinds have a discussion about their legs at school…. I think it was just their interest in how different they all were! We talked about how everyone is different but eye opening to how young kids are when they pick up on such things….

    We do need to be more vigilant!

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