Once upon a time, there were three children’s books. Each book told the same story about a boy called Alfie and what happened when his cat got stuck up a tree. But each book was different in one important detail. In one book, Alfie was thin. In another, Alfie was in a wheelchair. In the third, Alfie was fat.
Lots of children were given the books to read and afterwards they talked about what they thought of Alfie. They were happy to imagine thin Alfie as their friend, but they thought fat Alfie was less likely to be invited to parties and more likely to be naughty.
This is a true story. Leeds University conducted a study with pupils aged four to seven, discovering that the majority of children voiced negative views about “fat Alfie”. Lead researcher Professor Andrew Hill says: “Young kids like this are a social barometer. They are telling us that society is so conscious of body shape that even young children are able to mirror back what we say about obesity.”
On the rare occasions that children’s literature features a fat character, it almost always equates fatness with badness. Take Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s spoiled brat of a cousin. Dudley and his parents are hateful, rotten, loathsome characters, whose obesity is described with relish as moral downfall and a character flaw.
In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop is introduced by the Oompa-Loompas song. While Roald writes of other characters being vile for what they do, Augustus is vile for who he is:
“Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop!
The great big greedy nincompoop!
How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast
On everything he wanted to?
Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!
However long this pig might live
We’re positive he’s never give
Even the smallest bit of fun
Or happiness to anyone.”
The song goes on and on, with lines including: “But this revolting boy, of course, was so unutterably vile, so greedy, foul, and infantile” and “This boy, who only just before was loathed by men from shore to shore, this greedy brute, this louse’s ear”.
Augustus Gloop, of course, is “sliced and boiled” into a piece of fudge.
How does this 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 a moral failing. Something is wrong with them. They aren’t main character material. They’re ugly. No one wants to be their friend. They might be intelligent or have many talents, but what does it matter if everyone thinks of them as the “fat kid”?
Hating yourself for your size doesn’t help anyone, let alone a young child who could easily take all this to heart. Teaching children not to be fat or nobody will want to play with them is nothing short of playground bullying. Understanding how these stereotypes continue, even through seemingly innocent things such as children’s books, is key to eliminating fat hate.
In a world that is more often refusing to accept prejudiced stereotyping of other varieties, fat people seem to be the last socially acceptable target.
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