Negative Body Image Messages in a Children’s Book

BY: Melissa Munn-Chernoff, PhD

DATE: May 18, 2016
This story starts out at my 1 ½ year old daughter’s daycare a few weeks ago.

I dropped her off in the morning and, as usual, she headed for the shelf of books. Instead of bringing me her typical Elmo book, she brought me a book titled “Mom’s Diet” by Joy Cowley. Immediately, I was interested about the message this book was sending to its readers and decided to read it to myself while trying to distract my daughter with a different book. I only got through the first couple pages before she came and took it from me so that her teacher could read it – her teacher called it “The Spaghetti Book”.

Upon reading the first sentence, my jaw dropped. There was a picture of a mother with 3 young kids around her and she said “I’m too heavy”. She proceeded to inform them that she was going on a diet (eating lettuce and tomatoes for dinner) and that the kids would not be able to eat spaghetti, which they loved. When asked if they could eat spaghetti while mom ate her lettuce and tomatoes, mom said no because she could not sit and watch her children “gobble down spaghetti”. Although reading these sentences to myself made me absolutely cringe, hearing the teacher read these words was even worse!

When I got to work, I spoke with my colleagues and did a little research about the book. My colleagues agreed with me that this book was not sending a positive message about body image to either girls or boys, knowing that children as young as 3 years are affected by these messages and body size stereotypes.1-3 After searching online, I found other people who were upset by the book’s content. The mother weighed herself every day and thought she was “still too heavy”. Apparently, in one version of the book, the mother engaged in binge eating after her period of extreme dieting. I realized that this book needed to be removed not just from the classroom, but from the entire daycare.

That afternoon at the daycare, I was able to read the book with the daycare’s director and discuss the contents with her teachers. Although the book did not mention that the mother was binge eating (in this version, she stopped her diet and told her children that she liked herself the way she was), thankfully, the director and teachers agreed with me that the content in the book was not positive for the children, no matter what age. They let me remove the book and I replaced it with one that sent a more positive message about loving everyone.

While I recognize that I cannot and will not be able to shield my daughter from comments and other messages about negative body images in the future, this was something I could control. I know I am not the only parent who wants to make sure his or her child grows up with a positive body image, and it should not matter whether the child is an infant, toddler, teenager, or even young adult. Whenever there is an opportunity to step up and say that a message is not appropriate for our children, we should do so, no matter how small it may seem. These small steps may one day make a big difference.

1. Cramer P. and Steinwert T. (1998). Thin is good, fat is bad: how early does it begin? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19:429-451.
2. Harriger J.A., Calogero R.M., Witherington D.C., and Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin ideal in preschool girls. Sex Roles, 63:609-620.
3. Musher-Eizenman D.R., Holub S.C., Miller A.B., Goldstein S.E., and Edwards-Leeper L. (2004). Body size stigmatization in preschool children: the role of control attributions. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 29:613-620.