Do children's books have a fatphobia problem?

Large bodies are often missing from children's books — or made fun of. (Illustration: Nathalie Cruz)
Large bodies are often missing from children's books — or made fun of. (Illustration: Nathalie Cruz)

Parents of today’s young children grew up in an era that assaulted them with images of "heroin-chic" models daily. There were Barbies so disproportionate they couldn’t stand up if they were actual humans, and Victoria’s Secret "Angels" in every mall window display. It was difficult to escape negative messaging about bodies during the '80s and '90s. Thankfully, things are changing as society pushes back on the marketing of unhealthy or unrealistic bodies. Mattell has launched both a curvy Barbie as well as its first trans doll, when it immortalized Laverne Cox in shiny molded plastic with fabulous accessories. After singer-songwriter JAX went viral with a song calling out the problematic issues with Victoria’s Secret advertising, the megabrand owned up to the damage their advertising has wreaked.

While brands and advertisers are slowly changing their imaging, children’s literature has been slower to adopt body-positive illustrations. Only about 30% of kid books feature Black characters, and while there is no hard data yet on representation of different body sizes, parents and educators have begun to question why so many illustrated book characters are thin, and why, when bigger bodies are featured, they are often ridiculed or vilified (see: the "fat lady" on the beach in Harry by the Sea). This lack of body-positive representation can be damaging to kids. Finally, some authors and illustrators are seeking to shake up the industry.

One of those authors is Tyler Feder, who wrote and illustrated the popular 2021 picture book Bodies Are Cool. She didn’t necessarily set out to do something revolutionary — just something real. “In my experience, the range of body types I encounter on an average day at the beach is much closer to the variety in my book than in books where everyone has the same body type,” she says.

Her words and illustrations spark delight in the diversity of bodies kids see around them, reminding them of how beautiful all bodies were before the cultural messages began to change their perception. “Before kids are exposed to diet culture, their curiosity about bodies is so pure and free of value judgments," Feder says. "I’ve heard from so many parents whose kids point out their soft tummies or stretch marks with genuine excitement.”

That excitement is often quashed by elementary school.

Kids are influenced by diet culture and negative body stereotypes at a young age, says Pam Moore, a certified intuitive eating counselor, occupational therapist and host of the Real Fit podcast. As a mom raising two girls, ages 8 and 10, in Boulder, Colo., Moore thinks back to reading Peppa Pig books to her daughters and noticing the common narrative thread that pokes fun at Daddy Pig for being fat. She would always stop and remind her girls how wrong that was. Parents might not think a joke about fictional pigs affects their kids, but it does.

“You'd be hard-pressed to find a kid who will come out and say, ‘My self-image has been negatively affected by the images I see in books,’” says Moore. “But once you become aware of it, it's hard not to notice that diet culture — this message that you have to ‘eat right’ to stay healthy and avoid gaining weight — is pervasive in kids' books.”

She adds, "That narrative is so harmful. It tells kids in bigger bodies not only that their body is a problem to be solved, but that it's their fault." Thin kids, Moore notes, are also sent the message that they should fear weight gain and idolize thinness, even though weight is mostly determined by genetics.

Moore encourages parents to note when they see a damaging message in a book, like she did with her kids. Just call it out, right during story time.

This heavy work of undoing this damage takes time and intention, says Jyoti Gupta. As an anti-bias educator, she sought to create a resource that helps kids unpack these issues. Along with her illustrator Tarannum Pasricha, Gupta designed Different Differenter, an activity book targeted at kids ages 3 to 9 that focuses on body image.

“From the start, my illustrator and I wanted our book to show a child's world that came close to their real, everyday life, full of all types of differences,” says Gupta. ”This meant that children show up in the book, in varying heights and sizes, phenotypes, skin colors and hair types, disabilities, gender expressions, economic and religious backgrounds and markers of cultural belonging.” Gupta hopes that by not only reading the book, but engaging in the activities, kids and their grown-ups will be able to actively work against the negative body imaging they are bombarded with daily.

As for the future of kid lit, both authors are hopeful that the positive reception their books received is part of a growing trend. “There’s nothing wrong with reading the occasional less-diverse book,” says Feder, “But try to pay attention to what your kids notice, and answer any questions they have with a tone of positive curiosity and empathy.” She loves to return the conversation over and over to the main concept: It’s wonderful that people look so different, and the world would be boring if everyone looked the same.

Gupta believes these changes will impact the future of children’s literature. Parents are realizing the damage from their own childhoods and seeking better for their kids.

“It's up to the creative and publishing communities to hold each other accountable to a better standard,” she says. “We have to be intentional about inserting a variety of characters and illustrations in our stories. After all, all we have to really do is mirror life itself.”

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