Once Upon A Time...

The new children’s book, Maggie Goes on a Diet (Kramer, 2011), has received negative press for its blatant promotion of dieting, in addition to suggesting that weight-loss among kids can lead to increased popularity and athleticism. While the content of Kramer’s book may send a potentially dangerous message, the controversy surrounding its publication has lead to a positive outcome: parents and teachers are finally asking themselves, “what lessons are books teaching our children?”

Picture books are one of the first forms of media children are exposed to and, whether we like it or not, they offer strong messages about gender. Countless studies suggest that children’s books depict female characters in a passive light, portraying them as individuals who don’t speak their minds and avoid physical activity (Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada, & Ross, 1972; Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993; Foster, 2010).  In today’s popular picture books, female characters are commonly illustrated participating in stereotypically feminine activities, like playing dress-up, baking, and dancing.

Not only do picture books dictate how girls should behave, but they also propose how they should look. In their texts, those that identify female characters as beautiful most commonly depict them as white-skinned, large-eyed, and thin (Foster, 2010). Furthermore, in their 2003 study, Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz found that beauty is often a central theme in children’s fairytales, and these stories often assert that looking a certain way will win you the prince, get you out of the slums, and take you to happily ever after.

Flip through your daughter’s favourite bedtime story and you’ll see that the beautiful female characters are frequently adorned in dresses, bright colors, and feminine accessories (e.g., tutus, tiaras, and bows).  Popular children’s books, such as Fancy Nancy (O’Connor, 2006), teach young girls to focus on appearance-related factors - like accessorizing to enhance an outfit – rather than teaching girls it’s not their looks that matter but their unique personalities and accomplishments.

So what should be done to change this?

Rather than abiding by these socially constructed roles, books should encourage young readers to break away from these constricting and stereotypical boundaries, which are too commonly placed upon them. Female readers need to see images of girls getting messy, immersing themselves in sport, catching frogs, and playing freely, which is a rare sight in today’s writing.

With such limited definitions of beauty in children’s literature, it’s no surprise that girls as young as three express a preference for thinness, a fear of fat, and a desire to change aspects of their appearance (Harringer , Calogero, Witherington, & Smith, 2010; Hayes & Tantleff-Dunn, 2011).

While the media is only one factor influencing today’s children, its power shouldn’t be ignored.  I encourage you to take a closer look at the picture books you read to your children and critically assess its contents by asking,

What gender and beauty-based stereotypes are present?

Do these books show limited opportunities for female characters?

Remember, you can engage children in meaningful discussions that focus on gender and beauty representations in their favorite books.  Providing them with the skills to challenge stereotypes is one step toward enhancing a child’s self-esteem, which is essential to the development of a positive body image.

Michele completed her M.Ed. degree in counselling psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) in 2009.  She is currently a PhD. candidate in the same program.  Michele's doctoral practicum was at the Eating Disorder Unit of the Hospital for Sick Children, where she focused predominantly on the family-based treatment of disordered eating.  Her dissertation, which is supervised by Dr. Niva Piran and funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program, focuses on examining the representations of girls' embodiment in children's picture books.  Michele is extremely passionate about fuelling prevention efforts for disordered eating and body dissatisfaction in girls, and she hopes to contribute to these initiatives through her current research.  She has been involved with NEDIC in a variety of capacities since 2006.