Maggie Goes on a Diet: A Review

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Late last year I heard about an upcoming children’s book, titled “Maggie Goes on  Diet”. Here is the book’s description from Amazon.com:

This book is about a 14 year old girl who goes on a diet and is transformed from being extremely overweight and insecure to a normal sized girl who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self image.

Although the book’s protagonist is 14, it should be noted that this is a rhyming picture book which Amazon categorizes as being appropriate for ages 9-12.  A book about dieting to improve your self-image, aimed at 9 year olds. Not surprisingly, this raised alarm bells.

Here is a snippet of one of the many media reports that came out after the book was announced (but prior to it’s launch):

A children’s book that doesn’t go on sale for another two months has sparked a flurry of outrage online from critics who say the tale promotes eating disorders and teaches kids to self-hate.

On Tuesday, [author Paul Kramer] appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to defend the book, saying Maggie’s story will help children make healthier lifestyle choices.

“My intentions were just to write a story to entice and to have children feel better about themselves, discover a new way of eating, learn to do exercise, try to emulate Maggie and learn from Maggie’s experience,” Kramer said. “Children are pretty smart … and they will make a good choice if you give them that opportunity.”

Kramer also argued that critics are judging the book by its cover, rather than waiting to read it when it is available in the fall.

The book has since been unleashed upon the world.  Could it really be as bad as many feared? Yes, it could (and it is).

[Spoiler alert: if you want the book to be a surprise to you, then best to stop reading here.  Below follows a brief overview of the book's plot]

The Story

The book begins with Maggie playing baseball:

Everyone chuckled as Maggie got up to bat.

Maggie was not only clumsy, she was also quite fat.

Not a strong start.  And yet it gets worse.  Following the game Maggie goes on an eating binge:

Searching the refrigerator in hopes she would feel better,

eating lots of bread and cheeses including some cheddar.

Maggie was not going to let anything upset her.

We find out that Maggie also likes soccer (although she worries about being bad at it) and that she is picked on at school because of her weight.

But then Maggie decides to take things into her own hands.

It took Maggie awhile to finally make up her mind.

She promised herself she was going to reduce her stomach as well as her big behind.

Her plan?  Adopt a healthier diet and increase her level of physical activity (although I should point out that she already appears quite active in the first few pages of the book).

She begins eating oatmeal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and veggies with “various proteins” (yum!) for dinner.  All the while “Maggie missed her treats but imagined how she would look in her smaller sized jeans”.

After week 1, Maggie was already losing weight.  She also became a better athlete (interestingly, the “lose weight to improve at sports” approach is not uncommon among distance runners…), and began to be teased less at school.  Suddenly she had friends.

Fast forward 4 months and she’s already lost 30 lbs (!?!) and was exercising regularly.  She became a star athlete (winning the “High School Soccer Award”), her grades improved, and boys were more into her.  At the end of the book we find out that Maggie has lost 51 lbs just 10 months after adopting her new lifestyle.

The good

Clearly I’m not a fan of the book.  But to be fair, it does show how harmful bullying can be, and questions why kids can be so cruel towards children with obesity.  However, I think that message may be lost on some, especially given that the book seems to implicitly endorse the bullying since the solution was simply for Maggie to “reduce her stomach as well as her big behind”.  In other words the problem is with Maggie, not with the bullying.

The bad

See above.  The book suggests that kids should focus almost exclusively on their weight, and that reducing their weight will win them friends and admirers, as well as making them athletic superstars.  It also promotes an incredibly unrealistic expectation of dramatic and rapid weight loss, and places the blame/responsibility for body weight on the shoulders of the children themselves (<sarcasm>because children choose their body weight</sarcasm>).  Also, it seems to seems to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with kids with obesity, and something inherently “right” about other kids.

A friend of mine noted that the book does point out some unfortunate truths – individuals may feel more confident after rapid weight loss, and they may find that people treat them differently.  But the ideal solution here isn’t weight loss, but rather reducing weight bias and the stigma that surrounds obesity.

The ugly and/or weird

The rhymes in the book are a bit… odd.  My favourite comes from an episode when Maggie is invited to a sleepover with her new friends.

Susan yelled out, “I’m going to use the bathroom first.”

Twenty minutes later Maggie said, “Hurry up or I am going to burst.”

Maggie was worried that she might leave a smell.

Maggie said to herself, “There’s nothing I can do about it, so oh well.”

Dr Seuss it is not.

Despite all that, you should still read the book

As bad as I found the book, I think it’s worth reading because it shows just how many misconceptions there are around childhood obesity.  I find it amazing that anyone would think this was a good idea.  Yet while many people may find the book ridiculous, its core message isn’t that different from the one espoused by Georgia’s Strong 4 Life public health campaign.  So I think it’s an important book for people to read, if only so that they can decide for themselves how bad it is.

On that note, rather than purchasing the book through Amazon, I strongly urge you to get it through the local library.

Happy reading!

Travis

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