Through the Eyes of a Child: A Look at Fat Hate in Children’s Books

By Katie, 5:47 am

Hey, everyone! I’m so excited to share with you this guest post from McKella at the awesome blog Handprint Soul. She always has really insightful things to say, and this post is no exception. I’m also really excited to hear your thoughts on this important topic: the portrayal of fat characters in children’s media. Take it away, McKella!

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Hey beautiful readers, this is McKella from Handprint Soul. I’m so honored that Katie asked me to do this post. Health for the Whole Self is, in my opinion, one of the best body-image blogs out there and Katie is just incredible. She never seems to run out of wisdom to share with us.

A few weeks ago, I commented on Katie’s “Things Fat People are Told” post and it reminded me of the kids I’ve worked with over the years. Kids always say what’s on their mind whether it’s “appropriate” or not. I’ve heard kids say all kinds of things about fat people. Fat children are usually the object of ridicule and if a kid really wants to hurt someone’s feelings, he or she will probably call that person fat, because it’s the most awful insult they can think of. Where do kids get the idea that fat is a horrible thing? It comes from lots of places, but one unexpected source I’ve noticed is children’s books. Don’t believe me? Think of Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dudley in the Harry Potter series, Bess in the Nancy Drew series, Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and the list goes on.

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  • How does this shape the way children think of overweight people?

Some of these characters are mean, but all of them are portrayed as dumb, gluttonous, cowardly, obsessed with food and ugly, or at least unattractive.

Fat portrayal is the flip side of thin portrayal in the media. The heroes are thin and therefore smart, courageous, likeable, complex, and good. Fat characters, if not the villain, support the main character and provide a backdrop to make the protagonist appear even better by comparison. No one wants to be the fat character, because fatness is made to seem wrong. Kids may learn to think that fat people have no self-control and are dumb or gross, especially if their parents think this way.

  • How does that cause overweight children to see themselves?

With a lack of positive role models in books and an abundance of negative ones, fat children might see their size as not just a size, but as a moral failing. Something is wrong with them. They aren’t main character material. They’re ugly. No one wants to be their friend. If other kids make fun of them, these thoughts get worse. Nobody wants to be Dudley or Augustus. If a child’s parents or teacher makes comments about their body or encourage weight loss, these feelings might take over their identity. They might have all kinds of brains and talents and things to offer, but what does it matter if everyone just thinks of them as “the fat kid?”

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It’s a tough issue. We want kids to read, but we want to protect them from negative influences. The Harry Potter series is a fantastic work of literature and I think everyone should read it. Who didn’t love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

So, how can we help kids to see past body size? We might feel the urge to lock our kids in a little padded room where nothing could ever hurt them, but I feel that the answer is education and love, not over-sheltering.

Solutions:

  • Be a role model of acceptance and true health. Don’t make comments about anyone’s body, including your own. Avoid praising thinness. Take care of your own body and encourage healthy habits in your kids without putting the focus on weight or size.
  • Conversation. Ask your children what they think of the characters they read about, their friends and other people they know. Pay attention to how children treat and talk about others and ask questions. “Would you like this person to be your friend?” or “Do you think they like to do some of the things you like to do?” The point is to gently help children understand that all people want friends and can be good people, regardless of size.
  • Media literacy. Older children can start learning to think critically.  Ask older kids what they think of people in movies, advertisements, and books. Ask if they think they’re realistic. Make sure they know what stereotypes are. You don’t have to bombard your kids with questions, but provide some gentle guidance. In today’s society, understanding the way media works is a must.

I’m not saying anything against these books or children’s books in general. These are all great books and many of them have contributed greatly to children’s literacy and education, but books are written by people and people have prejudices. Understanding how these stereotypes are perpetuated, even through seemingly innocent media like children’s books, is key to eliminating Fat Hate.

What do you think about how weight is portrayed in children’s books, movies, television shows, etc. How do you think we as adults can help the younger generations be more accepting of people of all shapes and sizes?

32 Responses to “Through the Eyes of a Child: A Look at Fat Hate in Children’s Books”

  1. Sarah says:

    Great post! I enjoy reading your blog McKella.

    I have to wonder if it’s not the other way around. The books you mention as well as most media portray fat people the way THEY see them. Because they have no tolerance for differing body types themselves, that bias shows up in their writing, reporting or general attitude towards fat bodies.

    What we as a society can do is separate personal preferences from outward reaction. So if you don’t think fat bodies are attractive then fine, but that should have no relevance on treating people with basic decency or respecting body diversity.

    As individuals we are powerful. Speak up when you are witness to discrimination. Talk to children about different body types as well as how stereotypes are applied. If you have a fat body don’t hide away and wait to live your life until you have lost weight. Be seen living a life you want, not a life the media thinks you have.

    • Katie says:

      Well-said, Sarah. I like your point about how personal preferences should have nothing to do with how we treat people, because we should be treating everyone with respect and compassion.

  2. McKella says:

    Thanks Sarah! I think there’s a lot of things we can do to stop fat hate, and you named some great examples. I think that overweight people “coming out of hiding” would greatly increase tolerance, especially among children.

  3. Karen says:

    What a great post!! As a mother to two young girls, I try very hard to teach them that beauty is on the inside and not to judge people by the way the look. I make a conscious effort to talk positively about my body when they are around and to not criticize myself or others in their presence.

  4. Alexis says:

    There are actors who are fat yet their fat is ignored. Jack Black, Jason Alexander, John Goodman, Kevin James,,, I want to know why they can be fat but Kristie Alley is just short of being drawn and quartered for being the same. Is it cus these guys don’t apologies? They don’t make their weight an issue? Fat? Who’s fat? I’m always confused by this. If we can figure out why some get a free pass while others are crucified then we have the answer to weight discrimination at any age.

    • McKella says:

      That’s a great point Alexis! Wow, that’s material for a whole post by itself! I too have noticed this double standard, and I notice it in TV shows and commercials too, the stereotypical suburban couple with the skinny, put-together looking wife and a the heavy, balding, comically blumbering husband. Look at The Simpsons! I think it goes back to women being valued for their looks more than anything else, and that a woman isn’t skinny, she has nothing else to offer. That might be a little dramatic, but I think that’s the core of it.

      • Katie says:

        I agree. I’ve always found the double standard when it comes to weight and gender to be very frustrating, because it makes women out to be nothing but objects to be looked at.

        • Alexis says:

          I don’t mean women vs. men. I mean some ppl get a free pass. Leo DiCaprio got fried for gaining weight. Carline Rhea didn’t even though she was the host of Biggest Loser. And the new host is way doughy, but that obviously isn’t an issue.
          I never saw one article telling Kathy Bates to lose weight. She’s even done nude scenes. Some ppl have that “don’t even think about it” (saying I’m fat) attitude and they seem to be left alone. Others are targeted and hounded. Why?

          • Katie says:

            Good point, I hadn’t thought of those examples. My wheels are turning…

  5. This is such an amazing post! We should show children that true beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.

  6. Barbara says:

    Another example is the show Megamind. We just watched it last night and I thought it was interesting that the truly bad character (Tighten) was a “fat slob/nerd” up until he was given the super hero powers. Then suddenly he is ripped and supposed to be a good guy. Then when he turns bad he is punished by the powers being taken away and becomes fat again. I think that this is a very important issue to discuss with our children. I know that I try to show my son that it is how people act that matters, not how they look.

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for sharing this example, Barbara! It aligns perfectly with what McKella is saying in this post. How frustrating…

  7. Awesome post McKella!

    I remember cringing during the scene from Mathilda where the overweight kid who snuck a piece of cake was made to eat a giant chocolate cake in front of the school by the headmaster Ms. Trunchbull. (then again I cringed even more when I saw that scene in the movie.) It affected me so much for the longest time–even when I was an adult–I either snuck food if I was 100% sure no one would catch me.

    This is the main reason why I want to write a book (most likely a fantasy) that will feature a strong female character and a host of brave strong supporting characters of various types. I want a series anyone can read and relate too.

  8. Tamara says:

    From what I remember of Nancy Drew, Bess wasn’t /actually/ fat, but was a rather attractive blonde with low self-esteem who was always going on ill-advised diets for vanity. But that may have been from the later, politically-correct books from the 90s, and not the older originals.

    You don’t see it as much on American television, but if you tune in to an east Asian drama, there is always (ALWAYS) a fat friend to the lead character. If that fat friend is an adult, they have fat children. And the fat children always (ALWAYS) have a donut in their hands, or are obsessed with ramen or something. They’re always docile, somewhat stupid, and never linked to anyone romantically, unless it’s an outrageous comedic crush or with a similar clown.

    What bothers me about most children’s television in the US is that there’s no middle ground. You’re either skinny or fat. There’s no “normal.” The teen girls on the Disney channel are 100 pounds, tops, or they’re the token bully or misfit. The last time I saw a regular-sized main character for a children’s drama was Hilary Duff in “Lizzie McGuire”, and she went and dropped 30 pounds to become a pop star.

    That said, I wasn’t particularly damaged by media portrayals of “fat kids,” because I identified with the main character the way you’re supposed to. I was much more influenced by the comments of my classmates and family members.

    • Katie says:

      Good point about there being no middle ground. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s absolutely true.

    • AmyO says:

      Tamara, FYI – I definitely remember Bess in the Nancy Drew books being described as “plump.” Maybe they did remove that from the later books. That was 1950s code for “Girl needs to lose weight, for sure.” She was still plump in the books I read in the 1970s.

  9. Cait says:

    If I remember correctly, the John Bellairs “House With a Clock in Its Walls” and subsequent sequels had an overweight main character… but I’m hard pressed to think of any others, which is sad.

  10. AmyO says:

    There’s a thin line to walk here between teaching health and teaching acceptance. Because the fact is, a lot of people *are* fat due to lack of self control. (yes yes, I know that glandular disorders/medication side effects exist, just bear with me for a minute.) It is a lack of self control to eat too much food, or to eat too much unhealthy food. I don’t think that bad choices are OK, and I don’t think that fat is OK, when it comes from bad choices. I speak as someone who is aware that her own obesity stems from unhealthy choices about diet and exercise. I’m trying to change that. I would want to set that example for my kids.

    On the other hand, that lack of self-control can come from so many causes, including lack of good role models. For kids, who are not yet fully independent, fat is often not the result of conscious choice. They don’t have the tools yet to fully self-regulate. And I certainly would not ever advocate treating fat kids as stupid and ugly.

    So how do we walk the tightrope between saying healthy is better, and you have to learn to take responsibility for your own health, but people who are fat are not inferior?

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Amy. I see what you’re saying, although I’m coming at it from a slightly different perspective. For me and many people I know, food and overeating have nothing to do with willpower or self control; it’s much deeper and much more emotional than that. So I often encourage people to dig a bit more to discover what overeating is doing for them in their lives – for me it was a source of emotional comfort – and that often helps stabilize weight.

      Beyond that, however, I would say that the issue is also the automatic assumed correlation between weight and health. Much research has shown that thin people can still be unhealthy, while “fat” people can still be quite fit. So I suppose part of the issue is disconnecting the two, which could also lead to more acceptance and respect for people of all sizes. It’s a complicated issue, for sure!

  11. Deanna says:

    It’s very difficult to teach your child not to be a bully, when main characters in a lot of children’s shows are bullies. I’ve witnessed a few cartoons that have made fun of the “fat” kid in the show, one even called the fat kid a “Fat slob”. Cartoons are just getting worse these days, too. Girls in cartoons are always stick thin wearing super short skirts and the “nerds” of the group are always frumpy and chunky. No wonder overweight kids get made fun of so much, it’s what kids are watching every day on TV.

    • Katie says:

      That is so, so sad. My husband and I hope to have children in the future, and I’m half terrified to see the cartoons and other children’s programming out there today. :( I definitely see what you’re saying about how difficult it is to teach your children something when the media aimed at them is sending the opposite message.

  12. Karen says:

    I think media literacy is key, expecially as kids get older. They need to know that the perfect images they see in the media are airbrushed. A simple thing I do with my kids is just play with photo editing software on the computer. It shows them we can easily make things look like something they’re not. Then they understand that te perfect images they see in the media are just that – images. Not real people, and not something they can, or should. aspire to.

    • Katie says:

      It’s so great that you do that with your kids. Understanding the reality of images as children is going to help them so much as they get older.

  13. jill says:

    I get sick when someone who is borderline morbidly obese passes on their habits and does the same thing to their children. On two occasions I was accused of being mean when I offered weight watchers soda (which I purchase for myself and occasionally for my son, the carbonation damages teeth) to overweight children.

    When I was at my son’s elementary school I saw the pyramid and pictures that did not provide calorie and portion control info. The slightly overweight teacher would not take my suggestion.

    When I complained about the Jolly Rancher candy my son was given as a reward by his 3rd or 4th grade teacher i was patronized.

    The rich kids at school were giving Red Bull and Amp to my son.

    But they are smarter than I am apparently.

    As a long term cancer survivor who has come across so many issues in my personal life related to diet and exercise and healthy choices, let’s give the message in the right way, fat is not where it’s at and sugar is not a healthy choice.

  14. Lady Jennie says:

    What an excellent article, and honestly something I never thought of. While never openly contributing to the stereotype, I’m sure that I have an underlying prejudice. I’ve now struggled with my weight for the past ten years while living in a very thin society where everyone has a strong opinion about what it means to eat healthy. It takes an active consciousness to not propagate this kind of stereotype and negatively influence the children.

    • Katie says:

      That is so, so true. In fact, I think many of us probably have an underlying prejudice that we don’t even acknowledge or realize. Challenging that is not an easy thing to do, but it’s worth it in order to pass the right messages onto our children.

  15. [...] fat=bad originate? Yes, the media is a big player. But what about children’s literature? This post gives some serious food for thought (no pun [...]

  16. [...] fat=bad originate? Yes, the media is a big player. But what about children’s literature? This post gives some serious food for thought (no pun [...]

  17. JJ says:

    I read this post last night and it struck me that the only children’s character that I know of who is chubby and widely admired is Winnie the Pooh. The books make a point of saying how tubby he is, but he definitely is the star of the show.

    • Katie says:

      Interesting example! I’m especially intrigued by the fact that he isn’t a human, and I’m wondering if that plays into the greater degree of weight acceptance.

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