Healthy bodies : in picture books & children's talk : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Psychology) at Massey University, Manawatū, New Zealand

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This thesis explores the health and body discourses in children’s picture books, and in their talk. In part one I begin with an overview of the constructions in a broad selection of picture books, before narrowing down on seven key books for a multimodal critical discourse analysis (MMCDA). Overall, the books offered diverse constructions of health, bodies, food and physical activity; in contrast, those key books that focused on health reproduced dominant healthist discourses, where health was constructed in relation to diet and doing deliberate exercise. However, while this kind of ‘healthy living’ was constructed as what you should do, it was simultaneously shown as boring and unpleasant. In terms of bodies, the stories reproduced an ‘or you’ll get fat’ discourse (reminiscent of widespread obesity discourses) where being fat was constructed as the negative consequence of failing to do ‘healthy living’ correctly; and was associated with being greedy, lazy, humorous and unable. While the stories also offer some critique of these assumptions about health and bodies, these messages were often ambiguous or contradicted within and between the stories, and it was unclear how children ‘read’ these. For part two then, I conducted discussion groups with children (aged 6-7 years), to explore how the children made sense of the picture books in this context, as well as the health and body discourses they drew on in their talk. Predominantly, participants interpreted the stories in line with widespread healthist and obesity discourses, displaying their knowledge of what you should and shouldn’t eat, and constructing the fat characters negatively as ‘too fat’, with advice about how to change this. Their responses were mixed in terms of how they engaged with the critical elements of the stories. However, they also drew on a discourse of ‘growing big and strong’ in relation to health, occasionally troubled the simplistic constructions of fatness, and through their talk and body language showed the importance of pleasure in relation to food and movement. This study adds to our understanding of how children negotiate healthy body discourses in their talk, and reinforces the need to continue to explore how to engage with children about health and media literacy in more critical ways, avoiding the pitfalls of fat stigma.
Picture books for children, History and criticism, Human body in literature, Health in literature, Children, New Zealand, Attitudes