Mondays are our kindergartener’s “media day,” which means she and her classmates visit her elementary school’s library and have an opportunity to borrow a book for the upcoming week. During one Monday afternoon walk home from school, she gave me a synopsis of the book she was taking home, something along the lines of, “She [the main character] eats a lot of pink foods and turns pink, then she eats more pink food and turns red, and then she eats green foods and her color turns back to normal.”
Right off the bat, I had a feeling where this was going. My intuition proved correct once I read the book myself. Pinkalicious is a funny and cute book, but it is problematic in certain ways. If your child is going to read it, an accompanying and clarifying conversation will be important in order to mitigate harm.
The story begins with the main character, a young girl named Pinkalicious, baking pink cupcakes on a rainy day. She disregards her parents’ commands and eats so many of them that she wakes up in the morning and discovers that she has turned pink. Her doctor diagnoses her with a case of “Pinkititis” and advises her, “For the next week, no more pink cupcakes, pink bubble gum, or pink cotton candy.” The doctor continues, “To return to normal, you must eat a steady diet of green food.” Immediately thereafter, the book reads, “(YUCK!)”
The accompanying illustration shows several pink foods crossed out, indicating that Pinkalicious is to abstain from them. While the picture does include strawberries, grapefruit, and watermelon, the vast majority of the foods are desserts: lollipops, jelly beans, cotton candy, ice cream, donuts, milk shakes, jello, and cupcakes.
Following her trip to the doctor, Pinkalicious suffers various consequences as a result of her altered color: Her friend cannot spot her because she is camouflaged among the pink peonies, a bee mistakes her for a flower and lands on her nose, and she cries for her mother to take her home after bees, butterflies, and birds surround her.
Back at home, Pinkalicious requests and is denied another pink cupcake. After pretending to eat her dinner of “mushy, dark vegetables,” she sneaks back into the kitchen in the middle of the night and devours a cupcake that her mother had hidden. In the morning, a horrified Pinkalicious awakens to discover that her condition has worsened: She is now red.
Desperate to return to her normal self, Pinkalicious says, “I opened the fridge, held my nose, and squeezed a bottle of icky green relish onto my tongue. I ate pickles and spinach, olives and okra. I choked down artichokes, gagged on grapes, and burped up Brussels sprouts.” The accompanying illustration shows a few fruits – limes, honeydew, green apple, and grapes – and a bunch of vegetables, including broccoli, cucumber, celery, asparagus, cabbage, and peas. After ingesting these green foods, Pinkalicious loses her discoloration and becomes “beautiful.”
Left to their own devices to interpret this story, a child has likely internalized the following messages: (1) Pink foods are almost exclusively sweets. (2) Too many sweets will make them sick. (3) Sweets have an addictive-like quality. (4) The way to get healthy is to completely avoid sweets and to instead eat green foods. (5) Green foods are almost exclusively vegetables. (6) Vegetables are yucky. (7) Vegetables make them pretty.
Unfortunately, all of these messages are problematic. Let’s take a look.
Problematic Message 1: Pink foods are almost exclusively sweets.
Plenty of pink foods exist that have zero to mild sweetness, including corned beef, edible flowers, beets, dragon fruit, rare steak, and Himalayan salt, yet the only examples of pink foods that the authors cite are sweets because the former is really just code for the latter.
Problematic Message 2: Too many sweets will make them sick.
Sure, too many sweets can make someone sick, a lesson that I learned on Halloween many years ago. However, we tend to single out and villainize sweets, as if they are somehow the only food group that can sicken us in excess, while ignoring the reality that too much of anything can be detrimental to our health. Remember that even water, when consumed excessively, can kill someone.
Problematic Message 3: Sweets have an addictive-like quality.
Admittedly, this message is more subtle than the others, and I can imagine that it will go over the heads of some children. However, for those of us familiar with the apparent fallacy of sugar “addiction,” we can see its theme in the way that Pinkalicious eats another cupcake despite already having turned pink and gone to the doctor as well as in the lengths that she goes to – deceiving her family, waking up in the middle of the night, and sneaking around – in order to obtain the cupcake. Nevertheless, research suggests that sugar “addiction” is not a true addiction, but rather a byproduct of how we tend to demonize and restrict sugary foods.
Problematic Message 4: The way to get healthy is to completely avoid sweets and to instead eat green foods.
If this general sentiment sounds familiar, maybe that is because our culture oftentimes splits foods into dichotomies and presents one side as sin and the other as salvation. Whole30®, detoxes, “clean eating,” etc., are all based on this basic – and flawed – premise.
Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor who has taken to writing about nutrition because of the intersectionality of spirituality and food, sums up the situation very well, “It’s terrifying to live in a place where the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, or ADHD, or the causes of weight gain, are mysterious. So what we do is come up with certain causes for the things that we fear. If we’re trying to avoid things that we fear, why would we invent a world full of toxins that don’t really exist? Again, it’s about control. After all, if there are things that we’re scared of, then at least we know what to avoid. If there is a sacred diet, and if there are foods that are really taboo, yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also empowering, because we can readily identify culinary good and evil, and then we have a path that we can follow that’s salvific.”
Sickness and health are never entirely within our control and are certainly way more complex than eat this, not that.
Problematic Message 5: Green foods are almost exclusively vegetables.
To acknowledge the obvious, yes, many vegetables are green. However, for all the green veggies in the world, we also have pistachios, pumpkin seeds, avocados, and other fruits that the book excludes. Are sweets, such as lime jello and green apple jelly beans included? What about – gasp – green cupcakes? Of course not, and I think we all know why.
Problematic Message 6: Vegetables are yucky.
The attitude that we have towards various foods shapes how our children come to see them. In our culture, adults often teach children to view eating vegetables as a chore. For example, earning dessert by first eating vegetables teaches the child that consuming vegetables is the suffering that one must endure in order to be able to eat what they really want.
My first job as a dietitian was a traveling research position that sent me all over the country examining the foods and eating behaviors in elementary school cafeterias. All these years later, I still remember two specific schools. In one suburban Chicago school, the kids saw eating vegetables as uncool and would not eat them, so the cafeteria monitors would proactively remove the vegetables from the trays for fear that the uneaten veggies would be ammunition for a food fight. Peas were on the menu the day I was there, and I remember seeing the bottom of the trash bin lined with confiscated peas. Meanwhile, eating vegetables was the in thing to do in one northern Tennessee school. The problem the cafeteria workers faced there was that kids were taking too many vegetables from the self-serve salad bar, thereby exceeding the allowed serving sizes. The contrast between these two schools stuck with me because it illustrates how cultural views of a food shape its consumption.
Of course we all have our own unique food preferences and aversions, and some people genuinely just do not care for vegetables, but teaching kids that they are “yucky” is mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Problematic Message 7: Vegetables make them pretty.
“I was me, and I was beautiful,” says Pinkalicious after eating green foods and returning to her normal hue. With beauty being the subjective entity that it is, the use of the first-person perspective is significant and raises questions to which we will never know the answers.
On the surface, this quote reads as a self-affirming statement, but does Pinkalicious – who loves the color pink – really think she looks better now than she did when she was pink, or is she rather expressing relief that her color now matches the necessary criteria for societal beauty standards? In other words, does she really think she is beautiful in her own eyes, or because others – her parents, her doctor, and society as a whole – have taught her that being pink was wrong?
Unsaid but certainly implied is the message that if Pinkalicious returned to her beauty after eating green foods, then she must have been less than beautiful when she was eating pink foods, which tells kids that eating sweets makes them less attractive. If that sounds like too much of a stretch, consider the multitude of my adolescent patients (and sometimes their parents, too) who scapegoat sweets for their acne.
Given how many people – including kids – learn to dislike their bodies and yearn to conform to whatever media, peers, doctors, family, friends, etc., say they should look like, the notion that vegetables can make someone beautiful is surely enticing. The problem is that this message is false. Regardless of what one considers beautiful, no food group has the power to dramatically alter appearance.
Do you really want to indoctrinate your kindergartener into diet culture? If not, make sure that enjoying a reading of Pinkalicious is accompanied with a conversation discussing these messages.