Tag Archives: Daniel Pinkwater

Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences by Rebecca Jane Weinstein

Lynne Murray says:

People will do anything to protect their children. It is tragic when the actions they take damage their kids way more than the thing they are trying to protect against. This sad state of affairs is poignantly reported in at Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences, a collection of experiences and interviews by Rebecca Jane Weinstein, Esq., MSW.

The national media and its paying sponsors are heavily invested in the “curing fat kids industry.” Weinstein received invitations from major media outlets to do shows promoting her book, but only if they could pile on the bandwagon. “Talk show hosts wanted to be combative about the book because they thought it would be a good show to argue about the ‘childhood obesity crisis.’” Weinstein told me in an email. “I rejected those invitations.”

Weinstein’s refusal to participate in perpetuating the toxic myths about fat children demonstrates both integrity and a deep concern for the actual welfare of children. She will not frame these kids as hapless victims waiting to be set free (for a small fee) from an evil, communicable disease.

In the childhood obesity industry, only one narrative is acceptable: fat kids are damaged goods who need to attain a mystical state of health by becoming thin–regardless of how drastic and damaging the methods. No system has been proven to reliably make fat kids thin, at least not for long. Of course, that is a plus for the diet-addiction industry. Like the tobacco-addiction industry, they are manufacturing permanent customers.

In one essay in Fat Kids, “Collateral Damage in the ‘War on Obesity,’” Peggy Elam, Ph.D., describes how we got to this state of affairs and why the “problem” of fat kids qualifies as a moral panic:

Fat is a condition of the body, not a behavior. It is impossible to separate people from their bodies. Thus the “war on obesity” is actually a war on fat people. This “war” is hurting many people, but perhaps none so much as fat kids.

The attempt to eradicate fat bodies from society is both born out of and increases moral panic. Moral panics occur when certain groups are considered a threat to society and demonized. “What about the children?” and “Save the children!” are frequent rallying cries.

“Childhood obesity prevention” tactics have ranged from improving school meals to removing certain foods and drinks from vending machines to weighing and measuring kids and sending “BMI report cards” (also known as “fat letters”) to the parents of children deemed “overweight” or “obese.” While some such actions are reasonable—who wouldn’t want good meals served to schoolchildren?—others are patronizing, such as the assumption hat parents must not have noticed their kids are fat. The overarching problem with actions taken in the name of “childhood obesity prevention” and “treatment” is that they locate the problem in fat children’s bodies, and thus identify the problem is fat children themselves rather than focusing on behaviors, environments, or situations that are problematic for all children.

Sarah Yahm’s investigative article, “Who’s the Fat Cow Now? Ethnographic Insights on the Academy of the Sierras” begins the collection.  Yahm looks into the ways that a boarding school for “obese and overweight teens” teaches eating disorders to its students.

They start with death threats.

I ask the kids … why do it? They give me a couple of reasons: “So I don’t die when I’m twenty.” “To get healthier.” “It’s important to my mom, to be healthy.” Throughout it all looms the unquestioned threat of imminent death—the kids talk as if Wellspring is single-handedly snatching them from its jaws.

But Yahm finds an even more powerful yearning:

[W]hen they’re pressed they reveal an aching desire that has nothing to do with health and everything to do with being normal: ...

“I don’t know if people are gonna, like, change the way they act towards me but I’m looking forward to coming home, and this one boy called me a fat cow and I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Who’s the fat cow now?’ because he’s like heavy and he got really heavy over the summer, and he was so mean to me, so I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Hi.’”

One kid even tells me that “fatties” should be picked on more, that society is too accepting of fat kids, that maybe taunting helps kids decide that “Oh, well maybe I don’t want to be a fatty anymore.”

The overarching lesson they’re learning is quite clear—deviance should be punished, and the only way to be happy is to stop being deviant. Losing weight is about being cool, about having friends, about winning their parents’ approval, about not being picked on.

Aggressive children also learn with dazzling speed that bullying fat kids is okay, because the adults around them are painting a targets on them. In “Fat Immunity,” Addison remembers how the 1966 “President’s Physical Fitness Test” public weigh-in changed her life from that moment on:

Addison was the heaviest person in the school. At eight or nine years old, she was 95 pounds. She knew it, and all the other kids knew it, because the weighing took place in front of everyone. Not even a shame curtain separated her from her gawking peers. And needless to say, the heaviest kid in the school, a fat girl, heard no end. She was made fun of, of course. She was terribly embarrassed, of course. She felt very fat for the first time in her life, and painfully conscious of her body, of course. And of course, that was just the beginning.

Prior to that incident, the children hadn’t fully comprehended the power of teasing; it was as if by realizing Addison was fat and telling her so struck a chord, they had a glorious awakening. They learned the intense authority of being cruel.

The bullying is only getting worse, and schools have a notoriously poor record of protecting fat children. Ben’s story, in “Between a Rock and a Defensive Tackle,” describes the difficulty of fighting bullies when schools embrace fat hatred to blame the victim:

Whatever other hierarchy existed in elementary school, the fat kids had a spot to hold up: the bottom.

Ben frequently came home crying; even with the frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails of which he was made, little boys have a breaking point. Still, he tried to fight back. It was school policy to report bullying to the teacher, and Ben did. He did so often—so often, in fact, that during his fourth-grade parent-teacher conference his mother was informed Ben was an unrepentant tattletale. So much for zero-tolerance on the bullying front.

The experiences of fat children tell in the book are harrowing, but the resourcefulness of many children moved me deeply.

One child’s noble actions particularly stuck in my mind. “If I Were a Hat I Would Be a Sombrero” is told from the point of view of Elaine, a stepmother who seems on the face of it to be dealing with her husband’s very fat preteen son, Paul, and his younger siblings, all of who are horribly neglected. The children always return starved, lice-ridden, their clothing in tatters from court-ordered visits to their birth mother. When Elaine and her husband finally manage to obtain full custody, they find that Paul has been literally using his fat body as a shield to shelter his younger sisters and brothers from violent attacks by their birth mother. Paul’s heroic actions cost him a terrible price. Yet all the adults could see in him was a weight problem.

My own reaction to many of the experience recounted in Fat Kids reminded me of the deep feelings  Sondra Solovay’s Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight Based Discrimination stirred up in me when I read it.

I experience an almost volcanic rage when I read about the unfairness of victimizing fat kids and their parents. I had to ration my reading carefully, rest up, then at go at it again. But these stories need to be heard and these experiences need to be valued.

Many of these stories end with a hard-won prize of self-esteem that survivors of persecution have managed to build for themselves at no small cost. However, a notable antidote to the earnest sadness of many of the experiences in Fat Kids is a delightful interview with author and humorist, Daniel Pinkwater. “Digging Your Grave with Your Fork, and Other Things to Do for at Least Seven Decades, An Interview with Daniel Pinkwater” is one of the last pieces in the book. Think of it as dessert. His strong, self-reliant, incorrigibly funny attitude elevated my spirit.

Describing his childhood in Chicago in the 1940’s, Pinkwater says:

Q: How did you feel about being fat?

Fat was handy on the playground when it came to throwing a punch. I could put a little more behind a punch than a thinner kid, and so those few conflicts that arose—and I’d like to state for the record that I never started one of them—I could finish them pretty good. And also you could sit upon or fall upon someone. So you could use weight in fighting effectively. So it was a plus, and also it meant that some people might gravitate to one such as me for protection, because nobody would start with me, because I could put them away.

His view on doctors is similarly refreshing:

I don’t know if you have been to doctors a lot in your life, but there tend to be catchphrases that go around. If you’re seeing several doctors in a short period, you’ll discover them all saying the same formulaic things. And in this case, every doctor I was taken to told me, “You’ll be dead by the time you’re forty.” This upset my mother more than it upset me because that seemed like a ripe old age. It stayed with me, though, and I was very surprised at the age of forty when I didn’t die.

And then I realized that this was what your Scientologists call an engram, that had been lurking in there the whole time—it was errant nonsense. How could they predict such a thing? But I’d never bothered to refute it, I’d never bothered to dismiss it. And so it was just there as a given because I hadn’t questioned it. Forty-one, forty-two, I still wasn’t dead, seventy-one I’m still not dead, and as soon as I realized for sure that this was malarkey, which I would have realized immediately if I’d thought about it even, I felt very liberated.

Somehow or other, just a genetic fluke, a bright happy child. I drew the personality I got. I was lucky. I wasn’t insensitive. I was too amused and interested to buy any of this negative stuff. It didn’t stick, it wasn’t interesting to me. There was a period where I really wanted to become kind of a dramatic, tragic youth, but I couldn’t bring it off. Too many things made me laugh. Just luck.

Thanks, Daniel Pinkwater, I needed that.

Fat-Friendly Books for Children and Young Adults

Lynne Murray says:

The topic of fat friendly books for children came up about halfway through a recent (August 12th) call-in conversation with several Pearlsong Press authors. A reader, Ivan from New York, brought up the question, it’s at 33:18 on the mp3 recording at this link.

We all thought it was a great idea, although some of us knew more about the subject than others. My own conclusion was “someone (not me) should do this!” Children’s books require a particularly strong connection with one’s inner child. I think of Patricia Elmore, who has written several mysteries for children, when she spoke to our Mystery Writers of America chapter on this topic. She said that one of her books had a scene where a boy ate too much Halloween candy and threw up. Her editor wanted the episode removed, but she insisted on leaving it in and many young readers have since told her, “My favorite part was where he barfed.” Pat said that many of the things she loves in books are things grownups don’t get, but kids will love.

Fat friendly books for kids face special obstacles. Charlie Lovett,, who is both a teacher and a father, pointed out that children’s book buying is controlled by parents who usually drive the kids to the store and pay for the books. Young adults have their own money and more freedom to buy what they want when they want.

I started my search with a book that was fondly mentioned as a fat positive book for kids. National Public Radio commentator Daniel Pinkwater‘s Fat Camp Commandos.

In this book, the kids are forced to go to a fat camp and they break out of their summer diet prison and refuse to play the shaming game.

That was where I started the search and it ended pretty quickly, one book later with the sequel Fat Camp Commandos Go West. That was all I could initially find.

The fat camp subject brought home how, from a parent’s point of view, a child who is fat can be viewed as a problem to be solved. Also the most common method of dealing with a child is being teased or harassed is to urge weight loss. A fat child who tries to be okay with being fat, may be coerced by their parents into going to fat camp (as in the Pinkwater books) in a desperate attempt to protect their child by “fixing” the kid’s “weight problem.”

Unfortunately, providing another yo-yo diet experience, and in some cases even a chance for kids to learn bulimia and anorexia from fellow campers, solves no problems. No wonder people feel such affection for Pinkwater’s rebellious campers.

This Big Fat Blog post and the comments that follow provide an insight I hadn’t known–that fat camps can provide a kind of a refuge to escape from hazing and harassment and allow some space for recreation and hanging out with fat other kids.

But I digress.

Considering Charlie Lovett’s comment that parents are in charge of children’s book purchases, and that fat is such a source of pain for parents and children alike, it shouldn’t be surprising to find so little fat positive literature.

Teenaged readers have a little more control over their own reading material, and many if not most are looking for ways to cope with the deluge of media aimed at promoting only a certain kind of body as the ticket to social success.

A fat positive book for teens that came up in our Pearlsong Conversation was Cherie Bennett’s Life in the Fat Lane. Aimed at “grades 8 and up” it addresses teenaged readers.

As described on Bennett’s website:

Lara Ardeche has it all. Homecoming queen as a junior, great looks, and awesome boyfriend, and you can’t even hate her because she’s so…nice. Then, she starts gaining weight. A lot of weight. Uncontrollably. And soon, [she] is living life in the fat lane.

Bennett’s heroine finds her way to accepting a new identity, not as “Miss Perfect” but as herself without any magical weight loss.

Also fondly remembered was Susan Stinson‘s Fat Girl Dances with Rocks a 1994 book with a teenaged heroine.

The Booklist review stretches to describe Stinson’s poetical creation:

Fat 17-year-old Char gropes her way to happiness and self-identity via diets, pop rock, complicated dance moves, and pot while deciding whether she’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. Her long-standing best friend, Felice Ventura, a former fat girl herself, now studies Vogue and Cosmo with an attention she gives no academic subject, save geology. Char looks up to Felice, who has a flair for cosmetics, hairdos, and shoplifting, but is confused when her friend kisses her on the lips, then abruptly leaves town until fall. As Char spends her seventeenth summer working in a nursing home, her perceptions broaden to take in beauty’s myriad forms and manifestations–the meditative stride of an elderly inpatient, the convolutions of a wrinkled hand, folds of swollen flesh, an eagerly awaited letter. When she visits Felice in the desert, the inevitable coupling finally takes place. Shortly after, the earth really does move, but it’s the result of secret underground bomb tests rather than a pledge of undying love. A bittersweet story of teen love. Whitney Scott

Neither of these books aimed at teens gathered any, “If you liked this fat-friendly book, you’ll love this other book” recommendations that I could find, yet word of mouth is still the most reliable way to find these books.

Fortunately, one children’s book reviewer, Rebecca Rabinowitz,
posted a review on The Rotund blog on May 27, 2008 about fatphobia in children’s books, which led to a wonderful two-part guest post on the Shapely Prose blog about fat positive books she has found–starting on September 3 and concluding September 4, 2008.

The way that Rabinowitz breaks down the categories of what she calls fat politics-friendly books: (1) picture books; and (2) middle grade and young adult books, gives you a sense of the scarcity of such positive books:

I wish the list were longer, but these are, sadly, all the fatpol-friendly children’s books I have found so far. (I’m only one person, of course, so there may well be more out there that I don’t know about. Please holler if you know any!) Because fatpol-friendly children’s books are so rare, I’m taking off my regular book-reviewer hat and including some books that are artistically/literarily weaker than I would normally recommend. (Though you’ll probably be able to tell which ones I consider highest quality.)

Parameters: I focused on main characters rather than secondary characters. The characters’ levels of fatness range from slightly fat to very fat — although the status quo narrative definition of “very fat” is problematic, as has been discussed here before. Because defining levels of fatness is so problematic, I decided not to distinguish between levels of fatness in my capsule reviews. I’m frustrated and apologetic not to have found many “supersize” characters, nor many queer characters or characters of color. Although I’m not including any books that are too heinously offensive along general progressive lines, some of these books do include some sexism and racism at times, because they exist in the World, and it’s hard for things that exist in the World to avoid sexism and racism completely. Please note: while some of these books warrant an unreserved fatpol-friendly rating, many require caveats. The list was tragically short without the mixed-message books, and I wanted y’all to be able to make your own choices. Please don’t take an inclusion on this list to mean that a book is 100% fatpol-friendly and doesn’t warrant a critical eye.

The comments are also useful because readers suggest some of their own favorites.

Finding body positive books for children and young adults seems to be very much like panning for gold. The nuggets are far and few between, but worth the search when you find them.