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Denying childhood: Exploitation and the body image of six-year olds

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Friday, 9 September 2011

Aimed at children four to six-years-old, ‘Maggie Goes on a Diet’ by Paul Kramer is self-published by Aloha. Amazon reports it is not yet on sale but can be pre-ordered. Barnes & Noble list it and London bookshops expect the book to arrive shortly after it hits the shelves in the U.S. Scheduled for publication in October, ‘Maggie’ is already being publicised on sites in addition to Amazon and has received strong criticism from parents, ‘health gurus’, eating disorder specialists and bookstores.

Defending it against protests, Kramer says that the levels of obesity now experienced by young children require measures – including his book – to encourage positive eating habits and regular exercise. In other words, adopt the diet regime ‘Maggie Goes on a Diet’ suggests, and in six months, like Maggie, children in pre- and primary school will reduce unsightly bulges so to conform to a respectable weight. Meanwhile, those protesting fix upon the age-range suggested for the book – children as young as four are seen as the target – citing their own statistics, this time focused on the rise in eating disorders amongst children, particularly girls under 12 years.

‘Maggie’ is depicted on the book’s front cover, red-haired, pig-tailed and wearing all-enveloping sweatshirt and jeans – with a more than chubby appearance. She gazes into a full-length mirror, holding a skimpy pink gown up to her chest: it appears to be a ball-dress, though it could be a negligee or undergarment, sleeveless, vee-necked and definitely too slinky and ‘skinny’ for her ample frame. The reflection in the mirror is of a slim, hollow-cheeked red-head whose body would have no difficulty slipping into the rose-pale petticoat-like frock that - in parody of ‘Maggie’ - she, too, holds before her. The mirror image represents what ‘Maggie’ will become, if only she reads Mr Kramer’s book.


Although exercise is featured –Maggie is depicted on the soccer field – the message is ‘diet to become slim’ and ‘diet to be loved’. Particularly, says the message, delivered in rhyming couplets, to become the beloved of the boys! Maggie, fat on the field (as the book describes and pictures) is the target of laughter, taunts and (implied) ribald comment. A six-month diet, and she not only becomes sleek and slender, she is surrounded by adoring (young) male eyes.

Should we care?

Last month, Melbourne saw a beauty pageant for girls featuring children as young as two. As protestors from ‘Pull the Pin on Beauty Pageants for Children’ called for age restrictions on such events, pageant supporters labeled it, and their own and their children’s involvement, as ‘harmless and fun’. After all, what can be wrong when Victoria’s Child Safety Commissioner, asked by the Minister to attend and report back to her, says he’s ‘glad’ he was at the event, he ‘saw lots of people being happiness, being happy’, and ‘it was fine’.

Although child beauty pageant organisers were reported as saying there would be ‘no Botox’ in Melbourne, it is notorious that U.S. events run under a similar banner feature children, even infants, in figure-enhancing gear, full-makeup, exaggerated hairstyles a-gleam with copious lashings of hairspray, and – allegedly – Botox. Most recently, U.S. reports have a four-year-old child posing as Dolly Parton, wearing a padded bottom and fake breasts. Although the girl’s stylist was said to have recommended against the padding, the judges thought differently. The child won the competition.

In Melbourne, organisers said judging would concentrate on ‘facial beauty, overall appearance, personality and talent’. That such criteria might encourage dieting and resort to beauty ‘enhancements’ did not figure in the discussion. Nor did organisers or participants contemplate the elephant on the catwalk: psychological and physical harms recorded as accompanying a too-great emphasis on body image.

Ironically, while the media is filled with images of glamorous models, slender society ‘A’ listers and narrow-hipped fashionistas, this coverage is matched with stories centred in women-as-overweight, obesity, dieting, ‘before’ (adipose-rich) and ‘after’ (skinny). There are also the stories centring on the reverse - ‘before’ (slim and admired) and ‘after’ (fat and despised, a figure of ‘fun’ for taunting), or ‘before’ being smooth thighed, taut tummy, and ‘after’ featuring the dreaded cellulite and need-for-a-tummy-tuck.


Body image, anorexia nervosa and bulimia wage war for media space, against beauty depicted as weightless. Dress-designers now include ‘0’ as the size at which women must aim: size 10 as the ‘perfect’ female body has long-since been overtaken. Even Dove, priding itself on not following the herd, runs advertisements pressing home that ‘how we look’ is central to ‘who we are’. Women in Dove advertisements are larger, chubbier, full(er)-figured, which still sends the message that body-is-all.

When anorexia nervosa took the life of French model Isabelle Caro, it added just one more death to its almost inexorably growing list of mortalities. It is not only models and those living in the world of glamour who fall to the ravages of such eating disorders. Ordinary, everyday women and girls (along with growing numbers of young men) succumb to their siren call. Many do survive, but many do not. A physical and psychological condition classified by most professionals as an ‘illness’ or ‘disease’, reportedly anorexia ‘carries the highest mortality of all psychiatric conditions’.

Concerned about pressures in the fashion, media and advertising industries, more than a year ago, the Australian government took steps to ‘promote positive body image among young people’. A four-fold approach saw:

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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