Small Book Fills Big Need for Children
By the time children are in third grade, they already have prejudices about weight and shape. Those with “differences” are routinely subjected to teasing, social rejection, and even harassment, which can lead to low self-esteem and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Healthcare educators have created prevention materials for adolescents and teens, but because body image develops at such an early age, they face an uphill battle. Unfortunately, there have been no programs or materials for very young children until the publication of Shapesville (Gürze Books, 2003) this Fall. Under the guidance of internationally-respected experts on eating disorders prevention, two college seniors, Andy Mills and Becky Osborn, wrote Shapesville after intensively researching the topic of children’s body image. They created a land in which characters were a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, and worked with illustrator Erica Neitz, whose bold and engaging drawings brought the story to life. With input from a team of editors, designers, and prevention experts, every word and drawing was scrutinized for the most positive effect.
“Before Shapesville, there was nothing available that parents and teachers could use to help reduce the negative outcomes that teasing and prejudices have on kids’ self-esteem and self-image, ” said Michael Levine, Ph.D., a co-author of the clinical textbook, Preventing Eating Disorders. “The needs met by this book are unique.”
Mills and Osborn were mentored by Levine and Linda Smolak, Ph.D. at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, where they began Shapesville as an independent study project. They focused on themes of diversity, tolerance, and positive body image. Levine notes, “Shapesville is interesting, colorful, and is embedded with multi-faceted messages. The power of the book is in its basis for thoughtful discussions.”
Smolak, who coauthored Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in Youth, liked that the authors were concentrating on such young children. “A lot of kids at an early age inadvertently hear comments about their bodies as well as the bodies of others. Shapesville raises awareness about these issues and provides a ‘safe’ venue for parents, who do not have to talk about ‘fat’ or ‘skinny.’ Instead, they can address shape, size, and color, which are much lighter concepts and easier for children to understand.”
The authors took early drafts into first and second grade classrooms, where it received enthusiastic praise from administrators, teachers, and especially young students. After reading the book and showing its pictures, they posed questions from the back of the book. Osborn recalls that the teasing questions received the most attention from kids, who shared their own experiences of being ridiculed for everything from being big to wearing glasses. “I was amazed that the kids felt so comfortable talking about these subjects with a stranger, but I think it speaks well to the impact Shapesville might have on a classroom with an adult they know and trust.”
Mills points to the value of parents using Shapesville to help their children explore their feelings, “Ideally, children should also have a forum at home where their voice is respected and encouraged with regards to self-esteem and body image.” The note to educators and parents in the back of the book explains how to effectively talk about Shapesville’s themes with kids.
This book might not have gotten beyond the college-project stage were it not for a casual conversation at an international eating disorders conference. As he was leaving for the airport, Dr. Levine ran into Leigh Cohn, Publisher of Gürze Books, a company that has specialized in books on eating disorder since 1980, and the Editor-in-Chief of Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, the field’s leading reference on prevention. He asked Cohn to take a look at a photocopied version and soon afterwards the three recent college graduates had a book contract.
Although editors at Gürze Books had reviewed many children’s manuscripts over the years, including one in-hand from a published psychiatrist, they had not found the perfect project. “We’ve long recognized a need for a title to help kids appreciate and accept their natural bodies,” said Cohn, “but Shapesville is the first one we’ve seen that has just the right language and emphasis to effectively help prevent poor body image and its related problems.” This small book fills a large need.
Reprinted with permission from Shapesville
By J. Andrew Mills and Rebecca Osborn
Illustrated by Erica Neitz
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