|Billy Bunter, 1908 - not what we want!|
I had a quick look through the artwork of my latest book (most recently written - not yet published). There are a lot of children in the illustrations, but not one is overweight. What's going on here? The illustrator has been careful to make sure different ethnicities are represented. There are roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. There is at least one person in a wheelchair. There is one set of twins. But no one is fat.
If it is important that children see themselves represented in the books they read, why does that not extend also to overweight children? Is it because we are not admitting there are so many overweight children? Because it is a shameful indictment of our society, or because we hope the problem (and in terms of public health, it is a problem) will go away? Is it because we are embarrassed - either by the presence of a third of the children in the country or by showing them? Do we fear that if we show overweight children we will make heavy children feel bad, as though we are drawing attention to their weight? Or do we fear normalizing obesity? (And to be honest, it's normal already - which doesn't make it any better than normal but unhealthy inactivity.) I don't know what the answer is. I have just been in Denmark, where I didn't see any overweight children. Perhaps it is a marketing choice - the books won't sell into markets where children are routinely more slender, perhaps. Or publishers think they won't, which is effectively the same thing.
In the past, fat children in literature have been scoffed at, victimized, ridiculed. Perhaps those associations keep illustrators from including larger children. Do we still, subconsciously, think the plump child is lazy or stupid and won't take part in adventures? Or are we afraid of endorsing obesity by showing interesting characters - heroes, even - who are larger? It's tricky - we don't want the kids to feel bad, but we also don't want to suggest it's OK to be overweight because, in terms of health, it's not. But weight is not a moral issue, especially in the case of children who aren't really the ones in control of their diet.
It seems that in the inclusivity drive, some minorities are seriously excluded. It is right and proper that we have made an attempt to give children of different colours, levels of ability/disability and sexual/gender orientation far representation. But there is a large minority (in both senses) who are never represented. Perhaps we could have a debate about this. Why are we excluding large children? And could we not, please? Could we include larger children in illustrations doing totally normal things - not making an issue of their size, but just being children? Because up to 30% of children are not seeing themselves in books, and that's a much larger proportion than any of the other minorities we have battled to include. (And there are overlaps, of course - overweight children come in all varieties and colours.) This applies most to books with pictures, of course. But it applies equally to fiction and factual books, and to annuals, joke and puzzle books, and anything else that is illustrated.