It’s Circle Time, children! Gather around! Today we will learn about Jokey the Beagle.
Jokey the Beagle was big. Jokey the Beagle was fat. The vet said that Jokey was too big and too fat. Jokey needed to go on a diet.
The vet told Jokey’s family that Jokey needed to eat very little. Jokey needed to eat very little so he would lose weight. Jokey’s family did what the vet said and fed Jokey very little.
Jokey stayed on his diet for 10 days. On the 11th day, Jokey’s family took him to the grocery store. Jokey was very hungry. He snuck away and ate some dog biscuits. Jokey felt bad, but he did not feel hungry.
The vet was happy because Jokey lost weight. His family was happy because the vet said Jokey would be healthier. Jokey was still hungry.
Did you like that story, children? Any questions?
Why was Jokey’s family happy when Jokey was hungry? Good question! It was because Jokey was healthier.
Why was Jokey unhealthy? Because he was too big and that means he could get sick.
If Jokey didn’t want to go on a diet, and was hungry, why did his family make him do it? Well, Jokey didn’t know any better. He can’t make decisions for himself. He’s a dog.
Now it’s time for us to work on our assignment. Turn to page 29 in your workbook. Touch Part A of Lesson 9.
“Everybody in the pictures below should be on a diet. Under each person, write what kind of diet the person should be on. Write L under the two people who need a diet to lose weight. Write P under the two people who need a diet to put on weight. Write H under the two people who need to be on a diet to stay healthy.”
While this story is paraphrased, the student workbook page is 100% genuine. It comes from a program called Reading Mastery, an edition for 3rd graders. 10 year olds. Kids who rely on their families, teachers, and schools to guide them. Kids who are just starting to develop their own body images. Children who, like Jokey, don’t know any better.
Imagine yourself, as a 10 year old, looking at those six people. What context do you have? Well, you know Jokey was too big. You know that Jokey needed to eat little so he could lose weight. You also know he needed to lose weight to be healthy. But these people aren’t dogs. They are people that look like all the other people in your life. There are two that are bigger. If the story is right, those people must be unhealthy! They need a diet to lose weight! The story didn’t talk about diets to put on weight, though. Does that mean being too small is unhealthy, too? And that as long as you stay in between, you’ll stay healthy?
Consider this paper out of the University of South Australia by Birbeck and Drummond (2006) entitled Very young children’s body image: Body and minds under construction. In it, the authors use a similar set of pictures and interview a group of five and six year olds with questions like:
- Which of these images looks the most like you?
- If I was Harry Potter and I could change you into any one of these images, which one
would you like me to change you in to? Remember you might have to stay that way for a
long time so it needs to be one that you really like. Why?
- Harry Potter sometimes makes mistakes. What if by accident he turned you into this
image (largest person). How would you feel? Why?
- Out of all of these images which three would you invite to your birthday party? Why?
According to the authors, the real information comes from the “why” questions. Girls tended to make associations with the thinner figures, saying they were probably blond with blue eyes and a tan. The smaller figures were nicer and kinder. They did not want to be like the bigger figures, because they feared being teased or were already teased as “fat”. The boys frequently saw the larger figures as aggressors, bossy, or threatening.
Even at this very young age, the link between health and size is being solidified. Consider the following:
The children’s perception of the images regarded as being healthy varied widely but can be categorised as belonging to broadly three constructions. For some children the thinnest images, Images 1 and 2, represent the healthiest bodies. Typically comments such as “they look good, they are on diets, and they are skinny”, support their choice.
Another group identified images in the mid-range as being healthiest because, as (one boy) claims “the little ones have not eaten enough healthy food and the big ones have eaten too much fat food, probably hamburgers and nuggets.” The children’s understanding of health includes their own creative understandings with respect to what they have been taught.
When you delve even more deeply into the responses, you start to hear a strong parent tape, the voice of an authority figure coming out of the mouth of a child:
“The three thin ones have not eaten enough lollies to keep you just right. If all you eat is dairy you are always going to get skinnier but if you eat just some lollies you’ll be just right. It is really, really important to be the right shape.”
Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Is that really the best tactic when teaching children about body types and body image? Is it appropriate to create associations between body type, health, and worth at such a young age when, much like Jokey the Beagle, they can’t possibly understand the power of such value-laden, biased judgements? This is a form of indoctrination that is rarely questioned because, hey, we want “healthy” kids who make “good choices”. I am so grateful our children can now make good choices like dieting and excluding other children from birthday parties.