The outdated school book that's teaching body hatred to our kids

Schools teach all kinds of literacies nowadays: cultural literacy, digital literacy and, oh yes, diet literacy.

Just ask Perth mother Caitlin Roper who was shocked last week when she discovered a book called Mum's Diet being used in her five-year-old daughter's pre-primary class. The school reader is as bad as it sounds, jam-packed with weight obsession, crash dieting and body shaming.

"While I suspect it's supposed to be a positive message, it had some really distorted messages on food and eating," says Roper.

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Mum's Diet, which was written by renowned New Zealand children's author Joy Cowley, is about a mother who thinks she's fat, so she puts herself - and her children - on a diet of tomatoes and lettuce for one day and parsley and carrots for the next.

Roper, who works with Collective Shout, an organisation fighting the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in the media and advertising, says that she didn't want her daughter to learn about "fat talk" from a school reader.

"I make a point to have conversations with my kids about healthy behaviours: how healthy bodies can come in different shapes and sizes, that we eat good foods to fuel our bodies and we exercise because it makes our bodies strong and healthy. But even as small children, they are being exposed to toxic messages about eating and their bodies."

And if modelling extreme dieting isn't bad enough, Mum's Diet is also a primer in how to develop inter-generational disordered eating. Mum forces her kids to join her in the starvation diet, which prompts them to closet-eat when they go to their father's house.

And, understanding guy that he is, the father mocks the mother in front of the kids for her perpetual yo-yo dieting. Unable to sustain her tomato, lettuce, parsley and carrot diet, the mother eventually caves and starts binge-eating doughnuts.

Not only does the book normalise women's obsession with body weight - and how "funny" it is for men to ridicule them - it also trains children in the language of fat chat. For example:

"Every morning, Mum got on the scales.

"'I'm still too fat!' she would cry.

"And we would always say, 'No, you're not, Mum. You're just right.'"

Lydia Turner, co-founder and psychologist from BodyMatters Australasia, says that young children often take messages in books literally. This is particularly the case within an educational setting, where books carry the weight of authority and trust.

"Mum's Diet reinforces body shaming and fear towards food. The mother character teaches readers that their self-worth can be summed up by a number on the scale - a dangerous idea," Turner says.

"But what if she is genuinely fat?" asks Turner. "Is this the only way to boost self-worth - by pretending one's body conforms to societal standards of an ideal body size? How is this helpful?"

Eating disorders are potentially fatal and are often triggered by weight-loss dieting. But rather than addressing disordered eating as the serious issue that it is, Mum's Diet trivialises it and attempts to turn it into a joke.

"The mother's disorder is so severe she even insists her children diet too - refusing to let them eat a more appropriate meal choice of spaghetti bolognaise," says Turner.

"Parents sometimes force their child to go on the same diet they are on - as seen in Mum's Diet - only to wind up months later in my office seeking treatment because their child has gone on to develop an eating disorder."

When Caitlin Roper spoke to her daughter's teacher about Mum's Diet, the teacher was similarly horrified by the book's content and agreed to get rid of it.

"The teacher was great," Roper says. "She even asked, 'How did this get published?'"

Mum's Diet was published by Sunshine Books in 1987 and it's not the first time the book has sparked controversy. In response to an article last year, the Victorian Department of Education instructed schools in Victoria to remove the title from their collections. Other states would do well to follow this example.

"I'd really like for schools to be withdrawing these outdated books and to be proactive about sending positive messages about healthy behaviours," says Roper.

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author.