Children as young as three want to be thin, and are afraid of being fat. Recent research shows nearly half of girls between the ages of three to six worry about being fat.
“These thoughts make girls anxious, and keep them from enjoying their everyday experiences, and can lead to poor self-esteem and even disordered eating,” says Merryl Bear, director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, www.nedic.ca. The question remains, however, how such young girls come to internalize these negative messages about weight.
Picture books are one of the first forms of media to which children are exposed, and beauty is often a central theme in these stories. For example, consider Snow White, whose beauty so infuriated the queen that she opted to feed her a poison apple.
Children's books frequently feature thin heroes, and when larger-bodied characters are present, they are often depicted as evil or mean. Young readers, who are particularly impressionable, absorb these 'body codes'.
“I read my daughter a bedtime story every night,” said Claudia Falstaff of Toronto. “One night she asked why none of the girls in the pictures look like her.”
Psychological research has consistently demonstrated media exposure increases body concerns in girls and women. Illustrators have an opportunity to feature a variety of body shapes and sizes, and to thereby show young readers that not only one type of body is preferred.
“Don't be afraid to tell publishers that you want more diversity in the illustrations of body shapes and sizes in children's literature,” suggests Michele Foster, who is currently doing her doctoral research in the area of children's literature. “Publishers want what will sell.”
Discussing what children read and see in storybooks can change stereotypes that negatively impact feelings about their own bodies. “You can't fight what your kid likes, but you can expand how they think about it,” says Foster.
Jean Gottlieb is a Canadian health reporter