These days it’s hard to avoid the message that thin is best. From advertising billboards to the Oscar red carpet, we are inundated with images of successful ultra-thin women.
Past research has already shown that this ideal is filtering through to our children, even preschoolers. But before now, there has been little study of just how early pro-thin bias (and prejudice against fat people) appears, and how it develops with age.
Jennifer Harriger tested 102 girls from the South Western US, aged between three and five. She first asked the girls to consider 12 adjectives (six positive and six negative, including nice, smart, mean stupid) and to allocate each one to whichever of three female figures they felt the adjective was most suited. The precise wording was “Point to the girl that you think is/has …”. Crucially, one of the female figures was very thin, one was very fat, and the other average, with no other differences between them. Three-year-olds, four-year-olds and five-year-olds all tended to allocate more negative adjectives to the fat figure and more positive adjectives to the thin figure.
Another test involved the children looking at nine figures (three fat, three average and three thin) and choosing their first three preferences for playmates, and finally to choose their best friend from the selection. Children at all ages tended to choose a thin figure for their first choice, a thin or average for the second choice, with no bias in their third choice. Best friend choices tended to be thin.
Age differences were few, but there was some evidence that three-year-olds were showing more of a bias for thinness, as opposed to a bias against fat people, with fat prejudice increasing with age. For example, only the youngest girls allocated more negative adjectives to average and fat figures than to the thin figures, consistent with their believing “thin is good” rather than “fat is bad”.
The research needs to be replicated in other countries, with boys, and with even younger children. Harriger also noted that it would be interesting to look at the influence of children’s own weight and the beliefs of their parents, siblings and peers. For now, she said her findings illustrated “an increasing preference for thinness and intolerance for fatness in preschool age girls …” and that the promotion of size acceptance “must begin even earlier than we once believed.”
Harriger, J. (2014). Age Differences in Body Size Stereotyping in a Sample of Preschool Girls Eating Disorders, 23 (2), 177-190 DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2014.964610
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Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest