In the wake of children’s book Maggie Goes on a Diet, a poster child of self-publishing gone horribly awry, children’s advocates, health professionals, parents, and dietitians are butting heads over whether or not it’s OK to expose children to this four-letter word. But to be honest, I wish someone had put me on a diet when I was a kid.
It would have been empowering for my younger self to know that eating right isn’t hard, exercise can be fun, and that I can control, within genetic parameters, how my body looks and moves.
Let me clarify: I don’t think that kids should be told that they’re going on a diet. The word comes with all kinds of negative connotations and implications that most kids (and adults) just don’t need on top of the body-shaming messages splattered all over tv and Teen Vogue. What would have been beneficial to me, as an overweight kid who felt absolutely powerless and ashamed, was an education in what it meant to eat and exist healthfully. No BMI talk, no scales—just the tools to make my own decisions and feel in control of how I look and feel.
The fact is, growing up, my parents tried their best to provide healthy family meals on a very limited budget. We received CSA boxes, always had plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, and were raised to see these nutrient-dense foods as good options, not gross punishment. However, my mother is also a big snacker who’s battled her own weight all of her life, and as a result, we also always had plenty of cookies, candy, ice cream and all kinds of other calorie-laden items around the house. And because we were low-income, we ate both breakfast and lunch at school. Breakfast was frequently a doughnut, and lunch was whatever starchy, vitamin-deficient thing served in Oregon public schools in the 80s and 90s.
But if you’d asked me at age seven, I’d have told you I was a healthy eater, and that there was little to nothing I could do about my weight.
Which isn’t surprising; the message on late night TV, as I was eating dry cereal out of the box after a day of next-to-no physical activity, was that fat people are just unlucky, and that the only way to get un-fat is with single-minded exercise equipment (I wanted a Gazelle more than anything), diet pills, Slim Fast shakes and other quick-but-expensive-fixes. Every night, I went to bed wishing that I’d wake up and look like my thinner friends, because there was nothing else I could think to do. No one had ever told me that all it would have taken to get healthy (because being overweight doesn’t mean being unhealthy, but I was definitely both) and feel better about myself was to eat less and move more. And certainly, no one ever helped me make a real plan for how to do it.
Maggie Goes on a Diet, which appears to have been shouted down from ever actually being published, doesn’t send the right message–that losing weight will make a kid popular and awesome. But as an adult who was once a kid who could have benefited from some real talk about portion control and fitness, I don’t think breaching the subject in an honest and healthy way is necessarily a terrible idea. De-emphasizing weight and appearance, and emphasizing empowerment with eating and exercise are messages that a lot of America’s (ever more obese) kids could stand to hear more. And making proactive plans about how to stay in shape and feel good is definitely something that everyone—in or out of school—should implement to help control the obesity epidemic. No one can be expected to make the right choices when they don’t know what those choices are.
Being an overweight kid isn’t fun, and it isn’t, for a lot of kids, a choice. Sure, telling a kid just to “go on a diet” and begin preparing their own healthy meals may not be the right way to go about it. But when I was eight years old, overweight and extremely unhappy about my body, a plan of attack to help me get in shape and feel better would have been a huge benefit, then and later in life.