Body Image and Fat Aversion Starts in Young Childhood, Part 1

Bias is Born…Out of the Mouths of Babes

pregnant-belly.jpgThere’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Fatosphere” (a term I’m not really into since it makes this one segment of the internet world seem like a strange alternate universe that “actually” believes everyone, including people who are fat, should be treated equally– imagine that), and how on certain blogs adults are exposing media that demeans fat adults. As a body image specialist, the massive amount of research not only supports that society puts women who deviate from the “thin ideal” at a disadvantage, it makes our youngest citizens take notice and follow suit.

We all know, as parents and as caring adults, that we want our children to be as healthy as possible but do 5 year olds really need to worry about how big their butt looks in their favorite pair of OshKosh B’gosh overalls?

Even our kindergarteners “know” that “fat = bad” in America. In the late 1990s, a study asked children to look at some pictures of different body types and label them with personality traits. Consistently four and five year old children labeled the chubby figure as “mean” and the thin figure as “nice.”

This has been going on for a long time! This is nothing new. Even one of my previous advisors at Tufts University, Dr. Richard Lerner, found back in 1969 that 86% of their 5 year old subjects showed a “fat = bad” mentality. The majority of girls interviewed looked at the picture of a fat figure and labeled it the “girl that they would not like to look like at all.”

Other researchers found similar results. When young children were given the opportunity to play with fat or thin rag dolls, every child, including those who were themselves fat and thus shared a likeness with the fat dolls, preferred to play with the thin dolls. In addition, a 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 fat child.

More recent studies show that kindergarteners think fat people are “lazy, ugly, not as clean” and “not as smart” as children who are not fat. Clearly, children have accepted the stereotypes about body build perpetuated by society by five years of age.

So when parents are whispering about Aunt DoDo’s current weight gain and Moms are bemoaning eating too much on Superbowl Sunday as they pray to the lord above to make them look like a Dallas Cowboy’s Cheerleader (and Dad wishing along side her that he would listen), know that a very perceptive little set of eyes and ears are soaking it all in…and alas bias is born.


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