ENTERTAINMENT
12/11/2013 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Fat Jokes In Children's Movies Are A Lot More Common Than You Think

"At least you don't look like some kind of bloated roadside piñata! You really should think about going on a diet!" cries Puss in Boots in "Shrek The Third."

"Look at you! This fat butt, flabby arms ... and this ridiculous belly!" sneers Master Shifu in "Kung Fu Panda."

The world isn't kind to fat people, and neither are some of the past years' most beloved children's movies.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found at least one instance of stigma about fat people in an overwhelming majority -- 70 percent -- of the children's films they analyzed. Twenty percent of films also contained stigma about underweight people.

At the same time, the majority of films also portrayed behaviors that lead to overweight and obesity. Seventy-five percent of movies showed unhealthy snacks, 60 percent showed exaggerated portion sizes and 55 percent of movies showed sugar-sweetened drinks.

"This creates a double-edged sword," wrote researchers in the study, published recently in the medical journal Obesity. "Few healthy eating behaviors are modeled, yet once someone actually becomes overweight, he or she becomes the subject of ridicule."

In this scene from "Shrek The Third," Puss in Boots mocks Donkey's body after a body switch.

The researchers, led by Dr. Eliana Perrin M.D., M.P.H., analyzed the four top-grossing movies rated G or PG from 2006 to 2010. They then broke down those films, which include "Happy Feet," "Ratatouille," "Kung Fu Panda" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," into 10-minute segments and watched them with a tablet or laptop in hand to "code" the films in real time. For every 10-minute segment, the researchers checked boxes whenever they saw things like sugar-sweetened beverages or emotional eating. They also checked boxes when they saw stigma, like insults, about being overweight or underweight. They also made qualitative observations about how body size was portrayed in the films.

For instance, one coder noted that in "Wall-E," portrayed human beings are "so obese they are incapable of walking and spend all day lounging on hover chairs and drinking giant beverages."

For "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the least-impressive guest at a group dinner "is the one who most quickly shovels ice cream into his mouth."

"There are so many school programs and organizations working hard to combat bullying and stigmatizing behavior," said Perrin in a phone interview with Huffington Post. "It was really interesting for us to see [stigma] throughout children's films as being very normalized."

In this scene from "Kung Fu Panda," Master Shifu explains why Po will never succeed at kung fu.

There are limitations to Perrin's study. For instance, many of the animated films feature anthropomorphized animals, which complicates coders' interpretation of "healthy" eating behaviors. It even complicates stigma, because larger animals like pandas and mammoths are usually the butt of weight-based jokes but are also naturally larger.

Secondly, Perrin's coders didn't make note of the pushback to weight-based stigma contained within the movies themselves. For example, in "Kung Fu Panda," Po the Panda is told that he will never master kung fu partly because of his "ridiculous belly." But does Po's eventual triumph send a positive message that discipline and dedication, not weight, determines fate?

Perrin will explore the effect that stigmatized weight portrayals have on young viewers in a new study, slated for next year.

"The next phase of our research is going to look at if children take each of these comments and understand them separately or if they look at the whole gestalt," said Perrin. "If there's good learning in it, does it make them less stigmatizing in the end?"

Children's media expert Susan Linn, who is the director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, noted the importance of studies like Perrin's in an email to HuffPost, and encouraged caregivers to look beyond even explicit insults about weight to other content like physical character portrayals.

"Is the heroine always impossibly thin? Are the villains fat? Are characters who do not meet societal norms for beauty portrayed as stupid or undesirable?" Linn wrote. "What characters look like, and how they are treated, can have a powerful influence on how children see themselves and others."

Of course, in the real world, weight stigma is very real, and its effects on children can be devastating, according to Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

"When children are stigmatized, teased, or bullied about their weight, they are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, and even suicidal thoughts," Puhl wrote in an email to HuffPost. "They are also more likely to avoid school (to escape teasing), report that their grades are harmed and experience more social isolation. In addition, children who are teased or bullied about their weight are more likely to turn to unhealthy and disordered eating behaviors and extreme weight control practices, as well as avoidance of physical activity, which can ultimately reinforce weight gain."

In her own studies, Puhl has found that both parents and students think weight-based bullying is the most common form of school bullying.

"It's likely that part of the reason that weight stigma has become so socially acceptable in our culture is because of the way that overweight individuals are portrayed in the media -- which is frequently in a stigmatizing, stereotypical manner," concluded Puhl. "When we consider how much media our culture consumes, it's not surprising that we have so much weight stigma."

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