“The aversion toward chubbiness has been shown to begin at a very young age. According to research conducted in 2009 by the University of Central Florida and reported in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, nearly half of three- to- six year old girls worry about being fat.” — Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls & How to Help Them Thrive Despite It. (page 10)
YOUNG CHILDREN’S BODY IMAGE, FEAR OF FAT, & FAT HATRED
As it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about body image, fear of fat, eating disorders, and disordered eating. Most of this conversation has been devoted to teens and older. But what about the young children? How are they affected by this pervasive message that “fat is bad?”
In my book, Good Girls Don’t Get Fat, I cover the unbelievable reality that “Fear of fat” and “fat hatred” has been shown to begin at a very young age. While there isn’t a great deal of research out there on very young children, body image and weight, studies have shown that negative attitudes towards children who are considered “overweight” and “fat” in general have been detected in children as young as preschool-age children.
Here’s some study results in a nutshell.
- Thin means you’re nice and fat means you’re mean: One study showed that when children ages 3-5 years old were shown photos of different body types, 4 and 5 year old children consistently labeled the “chubby” figure as “mean” and the thin figure as “nice.” While the aversion for chubbiness was stronger in children ages four and five, preschool-aged children regardless of age ascribed more negative attributes to the “chubby” figure than to the “thin” figure.
- Thin means I want to play with you and fat means I don’t want you as a friend: These preschool children have also shown a preference for the “thin” figures as friends and playmates. THESE FINDINGS WERE THE SAME WHETHER THE CHILD TAKING PART IN THE STUDY WAS CONSIDERED “THIN,” “NORMAL,” OR “OVERWEIGHT.” In fact, sometimes the aversion was pronounced in the children who were considered overweight.
- Thin means I like you, fat means I don’t, and fat means “I don’t want to look like you at all:” Children as young as five years old show a clear dislike for those who are considered “fat” in accordance with cultural values. In a series of studies by my advisor at Tufts, they showed children different sized figures. The researchers found that of the 46 children in the sample, 86% of subjects expressed an aversion towards the chubby figures in the photographs shown to them during the course of their interviews. Most of the girls chose the photo of the “fat figure” as the “girl they would not like to look like at all.” They also found that those girls who were considered “overweight” didn’t want to look like the figure who was labeled “overweight.”
- Thin means we prefer you: Researchers have also found that when young children were given the opportunity to play with fat or thin rag dolls, every child, including those who were in the “overweight” category, preferred to play with the thin dolls.
- Fat means we least prefer you: A 2003 recent replication of a 1961 study showed that when children are presented with pictures of children who were in a wheelchair, missing a limb, on crutches, disfigured, or obese, most young children voiced that they would least prefer to play with the child who was considered “fat.”
Clearly, children have accepted the stereotypes about body size and weight perpetuated by society by five years of age.
- Heavier can mean body dissatisfaction and negative feelings: Body dissatisfaction and negative feelings about one’s own body fat begins at a young age. Even as young as 5 years old, falling in the overweight category has been associated with lower self-concept.
- Parental concerns and food restrictions can lower body esteem: Parental concerns about a child’s weight, particularly from the father, coupled with parental food restrictions, have been associated with young girls’ negative self evaluations and lowered overall body esteem.
- Aesthetic sports can make an impact: In comparison to girls who participated in non-aesthetic sports or no sports, girls who participated in aesthetic sports (sports that judge girls partly on appearance) reported higher weight concerns at ages 5 and 7. Also, girls who participated in aesthetic sports at ages 5 and 7 reported the greatest concern about their weight at age 7. Some physical activities such as ballet, dance, and figure skating place certain demands on their students to maintain a low body weight, because success in these arenas are dependent on a very thin body appearance.
- Parents and Teachers can send the message: Parents and teachers are inadvertently sending messages about the perfect body to children as young as 4 years old. “They do this by their attitude to their own bodies, and by suggesting to their daughter that they need to exercise more (to lose weight) and to their sons that they need to eat more (to increase their muscles),” said Marita McCabe, the lead researcher on the project. They are sending the message that “fat is bad” and “skinny is good” even before they start elementary school.
- Some parents are resorting to putting their babies on diets: It’s been noted that 1 in 10 babies and toddlers are considered “overweight.” To combat this development, some parents are going to extremes and restricting the caloric intake of their babies and toddlers.
- Eating Disorders are “exploding” for kids under 12: Between 1999 and 2006 the number of children under 12 who were hospitalized for eating disorders doubled from about 500 to 1000.
Clearly there’s a problem here. So…what are we going to do about it?
Note: Most of this information comes from my articles in the Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science (Vol 1)- the handbook for psychologists, in which, I was the body image expert. The references of the studies I cited are in there. Here is a link to part of that handbook.