Friday, February 22, 2008

Ethics of Fat and Children's Textbooks

So I'm working half-time as an author of English textbooks for Chinese middle school students. Here's an example of why it can be interesting:

The curriculum calls for a text on "unhealthy" foods. The vocab includes ice cream, cake, candy, Coke, and hamburgers. So I'm planning on writing a comparison between two brothers, one who eats healthy food and one who eats unhealthy foods.

Throughout this project, I'm always trying to find a way to pack a moral into the story. It's not easy because the language I can use is very restricted, but I do my best. And I feel like this text has a big potential, if also some risk.

1) Is it ethical to write the text in a way that shows the healthy-food-eater as good and strong, and the unhealthy-food-eater as fat and weak? I mean, this is definitely a good way to encourage young children to make nutritious eating decisions. But then there's the Judy Blume "Blubber" argument, that wants to treat fat people like humans instead of objects to be ridiculed, which I suppose has merit as well. Or should I cop out and be like "eating all this junk food makes the boy fat, and he can't run or play sports, but he is still a good, smart boy"?

2) In America, I'm pretty sure it would be illegal for a textbook to come out and say "Coke is unhealthy," and there are good reasons for this. But I'm not in America and Coke is unhealthy, and I kind of want to say it.

What do ya'll think?


赵晨威 said...

I'm answering my own question. I'm going to write about how this fat boy and this thin boy are both really good friends and complement each other really well.

Kind of a "harmonious society" kind of thing-- the censors will love it!

Noam Ross said...

There's always the fat boy as "victim of the corporate food marketing juggernaut" angle.

La Mama said...

ooh! I like Disaster's solution! i think you need to address that it leads to obesity, obesity is a health issue (not a moral or a reason to discriminate one.) AND..for added value, you could throw in that it is a major and growing problem in America which will probably add to our downfall. :)

Micah Sittig said...

I like disaster inc's solution as well. A fat boy who received his education at the hands of Big Fast Food, rather than from your illustrious textbook. Obesity is the product of making-un/ill-informed decisions about food.

Don't say Coke, say soft-drinks. Or soda/cola/pop.

Anonymous said...

Coke is not unhealthy, drinking lots of it everyday is.

Why not having the fat boy trying to eat health and ask the health boy how to do it ? You can also let them have fun with fruits and vegetables. Also play on the wide variety of food.

Is this book for a Chinese audience ? How appropriate is burgers, cookies, etc. for this audience ? Are you writing this in Chinese or English ?

赵晨威 said...

You guys are right. Seventh grade IS a good time to introduce such critical vocab as "victim" "juggernaut" and "obesity."

I met with my editor yesterday and asked him about using the trademark Coke as an "unhealthy food."

He shrugged. "Coke doesn't mean Coca-Cola. Chinese people know that. Pepsi is Coke, too."

I am writing this in English for a Chinese audience. Hamburgers are DEFINITELY relevant to young Chinese learners.

Anonymous said...

I love it, brother.

Look, fat is funny. Especially in China. People in northern China are thrilled that people are busting size 72 jeans, hoping to close in on 73's. That's Beijing and Shanghai, though bro.

Go to Shanghai to witness serious Walmart-style belt-loosening....

I hate to say it but China is undergoing a fairly wonderful reaction to wealth. Some people get fat. It elicits reaction in the old folks - they love it! Man, remember the 70's? those 80's? ... oh yeah baby! BAM!

One of my favorite recollections is Beijing 2005 supermarket: a 65 year old man walking around cavernous supermarket, hands behind back, eyes full of satisfaction, piles of food on aisles 1-30. How do you argue with a survivor?

Read Jasper Becker's 'Hungery Ghosts' or that hack job that still rings true 'Mao' by Jung Chang...

Peace in space.

Wen Jiang

Anonymous said...

So what happened in the end? What did you decide?

I give you loads of credit for speaking out about obesity...for putting it into writing...for caring about a generation of kids that are not "yours" per-say (although....don't we all belong to one another?).

I may not be obese...but sugar has made me sick. My husband gets ill when he consumes too much sugar as well. It makes me weak, gives me a headache, fibromyalgia symptoms, etc. Hubby gets a headache, fatigue, and more.

Perhaps you might focus on "all" of the negative effects of consuming too much junk.

I'm so proud of you btw for this blog, your move to China, and who you are! It is wonderful reading your blog...I hope you will continue sharing.

Lots of love,

Rachel Rechtman (now Banks)

赵晨威 said...


Thank you so much for your comment and for getting in touch! Can you email me please so I have your contact info?

The obesity text wound up being a frank assessment of the dangers of unhealthy eating but with the qualification that fat kids are still smart, fun, cool people, and there's no reason why healthy eaters and unhealthy eaters can't be great friends.