Sunday, 9 October 2016

A weighty issue

Billy Bunter, 1908 - not what we want!
In England, a third of children aged 10-11 and a fifth of those aged 4-5 are obese or overweight (with more being obese than overweight). Another survey found that nearly a third between 2 and 15 are overweight or obese.

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.


Katherine Langrish said...

Interesting question. I remember enjoying Enid Blyton's books as a child, and she had at least one overweight hero - with the inevitable if unfortunate nickname of 'Fatty' - but his weight wasn't the point: he was very clever,the leader of (I think?)'The Five Find-Outers',and his intelligence always won the day.

David Thorpe said...

The obesity epidemic is disturbing and due to complex factors. Would it not normalise the phenomenon to have overweight kids portrayed, or just reflect it? It depends on how they are portrayed. I do think a novel that sensitively addressed the issue would be welcome. Does anyone know of one already?

Enid Richemont said...

I've been holding fire on this one for fear of offending people, but feel safer posting here. I grew up in a very working-class South Wales town, and my favourite auntie was plump, loving and cuddly. I have no recollection of seeing anyone I'd have classified as 'obese' until, in the late Sixties, we went, for three months, to the USA, because my husband had work there. Eating out, as we had to initially, we were shocked by the proportions of food we were served in restaurants - in our eyes, enough food for three (at least) would be served on one plate. It was there, as well, that we found ourselves shocked by the sight of extremely obese people.

Around (I'm guessing) twenty-five years ago, I began noticing the same things happening here. One weekend, we drove to Cornwall, stopping halfway to stay and eat in a Somerset village. The portions we were offered in the local pub were gargantuan - a single starter would have sufficed for a whole meal. It was around then, too, that I began noticing seriously, clinically obese, people, something I have since attributed to America's obsession with marketing and advertising, especially overseas.

It's sad being an obese (rather than plump) child - health and social problems etc etc - and I think there's an opportunity for an extremely knowledgeable and extremely sensitive novelist to portray this condition with a not-too-fakey positive outcome. Politically something should be done, but commerce is all-powerful, so it probably won't be. In the meantime, sugary junk is sold in every W H Smith's along with the books - a good reason to patronise a proper bookshop.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Enid. I don't think anyone is going to be offended. It's true that initially American and now also British restaurants serve ridiculously large portions. Presumably this began as a way of looking like good value, but then people ate it all... The size of plates for sale (just as plates) has also increased.

I agree that there's space for novels to deal with body image and weight. But before the novel stage, just when children are small, should they not see different body shapes reflected in picture books? Or do we think showing plump or obese children makes it look as though we are endorsing childhood obesity? Showing traffic accidents doesn't endorse dangerous driving.

Marianne Knowles said...

David, two US novels come to mind, which have overweight/obese protagonists:
Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Emma Barnes said...

I agree that kids of all shapes and sizes should be in fiction, and - as ever - one of the great authors for doing this is Jacqueline Wilson. I think Cookie is one of her books where a plump child is the protagonist, but a lot of her books have characters who happen to be plump - it is not "the issue" of the book, just like life. The Tracey Beaker books and the "Biscuit" books and Sleepovers all have positively portrayed larger characters.

In my book Sam and the Griswalds is plump - he also longs to be a footballer, and partly because of his weight, lacks the confidence to pursue this. In the book, as he makes new friends, he also gains confidence to pursue his sporting dreams...