Children’s Book Ethics: “Maggie Goes On A Diet”

Send it to Hell.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Shel Silverstein’s satirical “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book,” an adult audience parody of children’s books which, in addition to teaching an incorrect alphabet, included segments that encouraged night terrors and fear of castration, endorsed sibling jealousy, extolled violent conduct and theft, and even tried to convince children to eat the pages. The book is hilarious, but only because it is clear that no parent in their right mind would ever let a child near such a publication.  No parents in their right minds should let their daughters near “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” either.

Paul Kramer’s fable about an obese 14-year-old who turns her life around by losing weight is as potentially damaging to children as anything in Shel Silverstein’s spoof; unfortunately, the author doesn’t realize it. Let’s hope parents do.

The book, written in simple verse, is aimed at children as young as four…in other words, children who are at least a decade away from needing to think about diets at all.  The book will put that to an end, however, showing 14-year old Maggie, who just as easily could be much younger based on the drawings, as a fat, miserable outcast. She is ostracized as a result;  her classmates call her “fatty and chubby.” This aspect of the tale can reliably be expected to frighten any pre-schooler into panicking if she looks any thicker than Kate Moss.

The story takes a happy turn, however, when Maggie resolves to change her lifestyle, eating healthy and exercising. Gradually she becomes thin, athletic and conventionally attractive, achieves success on the soccer field, and attains the Mecca of modern America, “popularity and fame.”

Before I elaborate on why this irresponsible and warped book should be shipped straight to Hell, it is only fair to mention that children’s literature often have messages, intentional or not, that convey dubious messages and values. If Maggie’s story had been written by Hans Christian Anderson, Maggie would have suddenly hit glorious transforming puberty without lifting a dumbbell and emerged looking like Megan Fox, allowing her to sneer at her now envious and comparatively homely taunters and go on to a glamorous career as a reality TV star. Many have found the moral of “The Ugly Duckling” troubling, and there have been many subsequent efforts, some regarded as classics, that I wouldn’t give to a child under threat of death.

“The Rainbow Fish” by Marcus Pfister, for example, teaches that conformity is the only way to happiness, that friends are bought with gifts rather than character, and that the right thing to do is to equalize possessions in the community, with one’s most valued possessions being shared by all. The book reads like a demented collaboration between Donald Trump and Karl Marx.

“Maggie Goes on a Diet” is worse, however. It seems calculated to create body image anxieties for young girls, who are already absorbing  toxic messages from the media and pop. Rather than assert her own self-worth by standing up to the children who mock her appearance, rather than demonstrate that her physical appearance is not what defines her, Maggie adopts and ratifies the opinion of the bullies that abuse her, and concludes that they are right: it is bad to be heavy, and in to be thin. Once her diet succeeds, she apparently eschews the payback of “The Ugly Duckling,” and simply becomes one of the pack, probably joining in the taunting of the next girl who doesn’t conform to Kardashian standards. (That scene is omitted, however.)

The lesson: conform or else.

And what are her rewards for becoming thin, attractive, and athletic ? Well, she’s a winner, as opposed to what she was before, which is to say “a loser.”  Fat people are, as defined by the book, losers: Maggie only started winning once she was fit. She also has “popularity and fame.” These are certainly the goals of the current celebrity-worshipping culture, but they are also shallow goals that are devoid of anything that could be fairly called substance or value. A child can become popular without displaying any virtue or character whatsoever, and fame comes to the idiotic, corrupt, stupid and despicable with horrifying regularity.

I watched the author, Paul Kramer, defend his work on “Good Morning America.” He said he only wanted to write a book that would help children adopt a healthy lifestyle. Then the interviewer mentioned that the emphasis on dieting in the title of a book aimed at children too young to diet seemed like a miscalculation. His answer? It was a catchier and more marketable title than “Maggie Gets Healthy.”

That tells us what we need to know about the motives and orientation of the man who wrote the book, and his plan is going well: the publicity has been overwhelming, and his book is certain to sell well, even if its is only bought by child psychologists, researchers and anorexia counselors. Some of the books, however, are going to find their way into the hands, hearts and minds of young girls, to undermine their self-esteem and send them down the dead-end road of narcissism and conformity.

20 thoughts on “Children’s Book Ethics: “Maggie Goes On A Diet”

  1. So with an epidemic of anorexia already overwhelming girls and women, we now also define success in the most banal and damaging way possible. This, then, should be our goal in life? “You can never be too rich or too thin…” Add now that you can only achieve success if you conform with whatever society or sub-society in which you live. Horrific.

    P.S. I did see an argument between an obese pediatrician who touted the book as a way to stem childhood diabetes, and a woman who saw the book as extremely damaging to pre-pubescent girls, and as teaching all the wrong lessons — about body image, courage, conformity, and learning to be and accept those who are different.

  2. Such a challenging reality for “chubby” kids who really need to get healthy while the media and peers can make life miserable. Alas, some parents don’t address the issue. Many of us dieted to be healthy on our own when very young as no one was around to help us to it. Today is different as “super thin” is out there as norm at the same time kids are often eating all the wrong things and not moving at all. Books like this, however, are not the solution. How dare the writer defend something like this that can be taken so out of context of the right steps for kids.

    • He dares because its lucrative. I was stunned to see that the author appeared on TV as a fat, middle-aged guy in a Hawaian shirt. I won’t stereotype the guy: maybe he has a deep background in child psychology, but I sure doubt it.

  3. See, at this late hour, I don’t know which I’d rather do more. Should I write a kids book that’s even worse than this? (“Timmy Inhales From The Bottles Under The Sink”) Or should I write a kids book without any message whatsoever? (“Frankie The Frog Doesn’t Get A Damn Thing Done Today”)

    • And parents get up in arms over the words in rap songs and the images in video games, but will eagerly buy this brain-poison because it claims to be about “health.”

      Really—we are too gullible to live.

  4. Absolutely, Jeff! What a waste, really, when adults can do such productive things to make a difference with kids. Mentoring, Scouts (lots of hiking and healthy activities), etc. Attention must be paid!

  5. Rightly or wrongly, the happiness of the majority of people is highly dependent on how other people view them. If you are good-looking you are more likely to have friends, get a girlfriend/boyfrind, get a job, get a promotion, become POTUS…
    A person can value someone based on their mind, but people judge a lot on looks.

    With that in mind, what’s wrong with encouraging some fatties to get healthier and happier – and admitting that there is indeed a strong correlation between the two.

    “The lesson: conform or else.”
    maybe fat = pathetic due to low self esteem and pathetic due to inability to do simple physical tasks such as run for a bus. maybe kids rip on someone because of those reasons, not because the person doesn’t conform.

    • Rightly or wrongly, the happiness of the majority of people is highly dependent on how other people view them. If you are good-looking you are more likely to have friends, get a girlfriend/boyfreind, get a job, get a promotion, become POTUS…

      So what’s your point? That when many, or a majority hold a dumb, destructive and shallow opinion it should be reinforced? I thought the point of teaching, education and acculturation was to pass along truths, not biases.

      A person can value someone based on their mind, but people judge a lot on looks.

      And such people are known as bigots, jerks amd fools. Why do you think we need more of them?

      With that in mind, what’s wrong with encouraging some fatties to get healthier and happier – and admitting that there is indeed a strong correlation between the two.

      If that was what the book did, I’d have no problem with it and neither would anyone else. But the motivation for Maggie’s diet was that she wasn’t popular, and was abused, and didn’t feel attractive. Health was an afterthought.

      “The lesson: conform or else.”
      maybe fat = pathetic due to low self esteem and pathetic due to inability to do simple physical tasks such as run for a bus. maybe kids rip on someone because of those reasons, not because the person doesn’t conform.

      Tell it to Chris Christy, Prince Fielder, Presidents Adams, Cleveland, Harrison, Arthur, Taft, Harding, and Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell, Kathy bares, Hattie McDaniel, Kathleen Turner, Tyne Daly, Barbara Cook, Queen Latifa, Whoopi Goldberg, John Goodman, Marlon Brand,o Aretha Franklin, James Earl Jones, Meatloaf, Luciano Pavarotti, Herman Kahn, Ben Franklin, Lou Costello, Orson Welles, Jack Black, David Wells, C.C. Sabathia, David Ortiz, Camryn Manheim, Candy Crowley, Buddha, and many, many, many others.

      • “so what’s your point…?”
        “and such people…”
        my point was that a person can make logical judgements, but as a species we have evolved instincts. those instincts include judgements of attractiveness, and the majority of people will not be logical but follow their instincts. that is not to be encouraged, but to put your head in the sand and pretend the majority won’t follow their instinctive judgement is disingenuous.

        “if that was…”
        so you are saying that you don’t have a problem with the book giving the message that a fatty is likely to be happier if they lose weight, so long as there is an additional message that it is also healthier? i can’t begin to understand your logic there.

        “tell it to…”
        your argument is that because successful fat people exist, kids at school must only bully for reasons of conformity. again, i can’t begin to understand your logic.

        • Apparently, in addition to logic, you have a problem with ethics, which involves determining what is good and desirable conduct, not accepting bad conduct because it is common or popular.

          There are health benefits of being thinner, but not being thin, or of maximal fitness, is not indicia of failure, Lifetime unhappiness or lack of self-worth. A book that suggests that the bullies are correct sends not only a wrong message but a misleading one. The bullies don’t care about health, but appearances. Can you comprehend THIS: the age group the book is aimed at, grade-schoolers, should not be worrying about whether their appearance meets some artificial norm, and their health is not at issue unless they are morbidly obese ?The book tries to make every girl who isn’t “popular and famous” feel morbidly obese. Your suggestion that the bullies are harassing Maggie for her own good rather than as persecution of a non-conforming “other” defies belief.

          You also mischaracterize what I wrote in reply to you. A book aimed at promoting a healthy lifestyle, exercise and good habits that notes benefits such as improved fitness and fashion options is completely different from the book in question, which equates fitness with happiness, social acceptability and success. As the message you couldn’t understand clearly showed, this is simply a lie, advanced by shallow people whose self-esteem rests on their presumption of personal and subjective beauty rather than true achievements, character and virtue.

          Not everyone can be thin or fit or attractive or popular, but anyone can be fair, courageous, kind, hard-working, competent, responsible, civil, kind, compassionate and trustworthy…traits that not only make the individual better and feel better, but have the added benefit of making those who come in contact with him or her feel better as well.

          I would also diagnose your use of the denigrating word “fatties” for anyone with a body fat index over 20% as a symptom of meanness, narrow-mindedness and bigotry. You might want to work on that…you’ll be happier in the end.


          • why do you think everyone can be kind but not everyone can be thin? what is the difference in your eyes? serious question.

            “…which equates fitness with happiness, social acceptability and success… this is simply a lie”
            could you point me to the research papers providing your evidence? i’m sure relevant research has been done so it shouldn’t be a problem.

            “I would also diagnose your use of the denigrating word “fatties” for anyone with a body fat index over 20% as a symptom of meanness”
            well… lack of empathy anyway 😉

            • The burden of proof is yours, not mine. People believe that outer appearances convey success, and happiness, but experience and common sense say otherwise. Advantages in a shallow society? Sure. But advantages don’t work alone.

              If it’s a serious question, it’s an odd one. Anyone can choose to be kind. Not everyone can choose to be thin. And failure to be kind is a character flaw. Not being thin: a value neutral choice of priorities. For example, I could argue that spending thousands of hours jogging in a lifetime that could be spent on activities that actually build, create or accomplish something other than an ideal fat ration and pulse rate is selfish, trivial and wasteful..

              • i will take a google scholar search over experience and common sense any day. i have seen the research; i just wanted to see if you would spend the 1min necessary to look yourself. it seems there is a correlation, albeit quite weak, between BMI and happiness. the correlation between exercise (and thereby BMI and fitness indirectly) and happiness is a strong one.

                you didn’t answer the question. i thought you were a lawyer, but you gave the answer of a politician. you restated your position as if that constituted an answer, and then gave a value judgement of both actions – which clearly was not what i asked about.

                • No, that’s a perfectly good answer, and a true one. Kindness is a matter of choice, wisdom experience, and character. not necessary any of those, certainly not for a young child.

                  Most “happiness’ research is flawed. because it does not filter out narcissism. Make someone a narcissist and they are “happy” being fit and beautiful—-what does that prove, exactly? Trivial and shallow people are happy about trivial and shallow things—you believe that is proof that being trivial and shallow is a virtue. I don’t, and that is based on common sense and experience. “Happiness” is not an objectively ideal goal anyway. 1) It is difficult to define, 2) unethical people are made happy by unethical things. 3) It is a lot more complex than you assume.

                  If someone is unhappy being overweight, then they should, or try. Nobody should try to make them unhappy, which is what the book advocates in its own inept way.

                  • you can choose to be kind. you can choose not to eat too much and to exercise. i suspect you find the former easy, and find the latter more difficult, i am naturally the other way round.
                    i understand many people enjoy food and find it difficult to find the time and inclination to exercise. they are both choices. i think you need to understand there are people who are not naturally kind but wish they were more ethical, just as there are people who are naturally inclined to be bigger but wish they weren’t. if you ‘choose’ something that is your natural inclination then it is easy to assume that ‘choice’ is easy for everyone else.

                    i know happiness is difficult to define, and i can’t objectively determine someone else’s happiness – that’s why studies simply ask the people, an entirely valid method in studies.

                    your disdain for evidence in favour of simply what you believe (which you hold to be common knowledge, or obvious) reminds me of the mindset of religious fundamentalists. are you a creationist perchance?

                    • Actually, Jack is nonreligious and (as far as I can remember) considers creationism to be intellectually bankrupt.

                      Also, I think what Jack was actually trying to say is that regardless of how society at the moment actually chooses to treat the overweight and regardless of whether fitness makes people happier or not, the ethical ideal will always be that you shouldn’t ever judge people solely because of their weight. Basically, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose some weight or advocating for people to do more exercise, but we shouldn’t write books which imply A. that people are justified in ostracizing the overweight, and B. that losing weight is the only way for fat people to achieve success (I’m saying this as someone who’s been perpetually straddling the underweight line since middle school).

                      Also, you really should not be surprised that Jack is going to ask that people be more ethical, regardless of whether they’re actually capable of following that advice; this is an ethics blog, so it’s in the goddamn job description!

                    • Your position is ignorant,.Many people are naturally heavy—they are called endomorphs, and included my Dad, Oprah, Orson Welles, John Candy, Rosie O’Donnell, and about 25% of the human race. It is the height or arrogance and ignorance for the ectomorphs and others obsessed with thinness to presume that every over-weight individual is a glutton, or lazy. For many, being thin or especially fit is not a choice, but a source of frustration, magnified by those, like you, who have difficulty being kind.

  6. My daughter is now 6. When she was 4, she had a preschool mean-girl in her class tell her she, along with other persons, including the 2 teachers, were FAT. I don’t talk about being fat at home, but I’m no Kate Moss- she didn’t hear anything of this sort from Dad or me. To this day, she sometimes pops out with, “I don’t like this dress because it makes me look fat.” SHE’S SIX. And not fat- the pediatrician told her she’s perfect, perfect, perfect (and hopefully she heard that statement as loudly). But one little bratty, annoying and WRONG little turd-head at preschool has set her and some of her friends into the cycle of weird body image things at WAY TOO EARLY an age. I can’t unring that bell. What went wrong with the turd-head kid’s mom that she was teaching her own daughter, at 4 or earlier, that it was something to pay attention to, much less be rude about? And will that turd-head kid ever grow out of it?

    Books like this continue to cause troubles because some kids are primed to hear the negative and believe it, because they are sensitive to it. I’m no book-burner, but if a book like this hadn’t been published, the American female population would be a tiny step further from self-annihilation. Amen, Jack, and shame on the author. “Maggie Gets Healthy” doesn’t fit the synopsis- he’d have actually had to write a different, less-shallow book. PFFFT.

    • Kids aren’t born socialized, and both kindness and cruelty, to some extent, have to be taught. But that type (and many other kinds) of purely mean, judgmental behavior has to be drummed in by some misguided role model, and it’s certain that the little turd-head in pre-school learned it from her equally turd-headed mom. Unfortunately, stuff like that sticks, and now of course it’s up to you and others close to your daughter to un-do it little by little. As luck would have it, it sounds as if your daughter is growing up in a loving, level-headed family situation. And that’s probably why her first encounter of this kind had such an impact. Deal with it now, as you say you are, before she hits her pre-teens. Then the whole world will be giving her the same message.

      I was anorexric in college – size 5 pants at 5’8″ tall and a whopping 113 pounds. Even then, thought I was “fat!” I had to get sick to start getting over it. Now still, a size 10 my “ideal” and doesn’t have to be.

      One anecdote that may help you realize that kids do mature and begin to have ideas of their own. One day I was cleaning out boxes in the basement for stuff for Goodwill and came upstairs with a pair of size 5 shorts I wore years ago. My son – age 14 at the time – was “grossed out.” He said, and I quote: “Mom, no grown woman should ever be that thin. It’s sick. Don’t go back there.” !!

      I think some kind of write-in campaign to the publisher and author is called for. And where’s the much vaunted women’s movement in all this? Where’s NOW and the others? I’ll try to find some addresses — especially e-mail ones.

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