BY: Tosha Smith, PhD
DATE: August 29, 2016
Like many parents with small children, I really value reading with my kids. We hear all the time from our children’s doctors and teachers that reading with our children is important for developing their language skills, and there is a solid foundation of research that demonstrates that this is in fact the case.1 However, as a parent, I am equally concerned with how reading affects my child’s character. Research shows that reading develops emotional intelligence in children by helping them understand both the protagonist’s and their own emotions.2 As parents, we know this. Instinctively, many of us use literature to help our children develop empathy and to teach celebrated virtues like kindness, bravery, teamwork, and perseverance, among others. Likewise, literature can instructively demonstrate what lack of virtue looks like, as stories that demonstrate unkindness and bullying show us how destructive, repulsive, and unjust such behaviors can be.
One recent evening, I was listening to my husband read the classic children’s book James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl aloud to our 4-year-old daughter. In James and Giant Peach, the lovable 4-year-old James is suddenly orphaned and sent to live with his aunts, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker who, Dahl tells us, “were both really horrible people” who treated little James very badly, and who “certainly never gave him any toys or any picture books to look at.” From there, Dahl offers various additional descriptions of the Aunts’ behaviors that were sufficient for the reader to conclude that James’ Aunts were selfish and mean and that they did not love the lovable James very much at all. Dahl could have stopped there – it was clear enough who the villains were. However, Dahl goes on to describe Aunt Sponge as “enormously fat and very short”, which I found alarming. Why, I wondered, was it necessary to discuss a character’s appearance when the preceding descriptions of her behaviors were enough to vilify her? The text that immediately followed this was so extreme that my husband refused to read it aloud to our kids. Dahl continued his description of Aunt Sponge:
“She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly like it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage”
What an evocative, nauseating description.
As readers, we expect authors to teach us how to feel about specific characters, presenting us with both heroes and villains for consideration. In James and the Giant Peach, the reader is clearly meant to hate Aunt Sponge in part because she’s fat. She does awful things, which Dahl tells us about, but we’re also supposed to hate her fatness. Subsequent descriptions of Aunt Sponge’s behaviors and her appearance imply that her fatness is the result of her laziness and greed – character defects manifested in the flesh. Overall, the message seems to be: “Of course she’s fat! Look how awful she is!”
Here at Exchanges, we’ve written before about examples of problematic body shaming in children’s literature, and we’ve noted how children can learn destructive body stereotypes (e.g. “thin” is good, and “fat” is bad) as young as 3 years of age.3-5 This is an important concern, as research has shown that body dissatisfaction can contribute to the development and maintenance of various eating disorder behaviors and to overall unhappiness, especially in young girls.6,7 Thus, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it may be to use disgusting or judgmental language about a character’s body size to help a young reader identify a villain in a story.
I wondered how widespread this phenomenon is – do many other children’s books or stories really vilify characters by describing how fat they are? I asked some fellow parents for examples that they could recall. In addition to Aunt Sponge from James and the Giant Peach, these were the most commonly offered:
- Dolores Umbridge, the sickeningly sweet, abusive villain in Harry Potter, described repeatedly as “large toad”
- Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, the wickedly abusive headmistress described negatively as a “formidable female” who is a “gigantic holy terror”
- Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (this was the most frequently cited example) This example comes not from a book, but from a movie, which may only mean that more children have been exposed to it)
While this informal poll is hardly a robust scientific investigation of body shaming in stories meant for children, it’s still worth noting that these are examples from wildly popular children’s works, which have likely been consumed by millions of children. In America, these are no obscure cultural artifacts (of course, other countries and cultures may be different). Those of you who are interested in scientific investigations of body shaming in children’s stories should stay tuned for the results of with an interdisciplinary team of scientists at UNC Chapel Hill.
Are there counter examples, where characters are fat and heroic? Or skinny and evil? Sure, but are they sufficient to undo the harmful examples listed here? It seems unlikely. In James and the Giant Peach, James has another aunt, Aunt Spiker, whose appearance Dahl describes as “lean and tall and bony” with “long wet narrow lips,” suggesting that the author is not trying to communicate that evil only comes in large bodies. However, the language used to describe Aunt Sponge was more extreme. In either case, using descriptions of physical characteristics rather than behavioral descriptions to vilify a character is still potentially damaging and, in the cases of the best writing, it is unnecessary.
Children are impressionable. Their understanding of the world starts out as simple and un-nuanced. As such, their stories tend to have very clear heroes and villains. Perhaps our efforts to create a culture in which every body size is valued, in which heroes come in all types of bodies, and in which our behavior (not our body size) determines our morality, require a different story list than the one sampled here. There are some great children’s stories that promote body positivity, or that showcase the very real reality that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. We’ll sample these in a subsequent post here, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you have suggestions for children’s stories (books, movies, etc.) that you think promote body positivity, comment on this post with your suggestions and we may include them.
Together, let’s curate a better story list for our children. They deserve it.
1 Shonkoff, J. P. & Phillips, D. A. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. (National Academies Press, 2000).
2 Nikolajeva, M. “Did you Feel as if you Hated People?”: Emotional Literacy Through Fiction. New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship 19, 95-107 (2013).
3 Cramer, P. & Steinwert, T. Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin? Journal of applied developmental psychology 19, 429-451 (1998).
4 Harriger, J. A., Calogero, R. M., Witherington, D. C. & Smith, J. E. Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin ideal in preschool girls. Sex Roles 63, 609-620 (2010).
5 Musher-Eizenman, D. R., Holub, S. C., Miller, A. B., Goldstein, S. E. & Edwards-Leeper, L. Body size stigmatization in preschool children: The role of control attributions. Journal of Pediatric Psychology 29, 613-620 (2004).
6 Cash, T. F. & Deagle, E. A. The nature and extent of body‐image disturbances in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: A meta‐analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders 22, 107-126 (1997).
7 Keski-Rahkonen, A. et al. Body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness in young adult twins. Int J Eat Disord 37, 188-199 (2005).
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