Fat prejudice isn't limited to the adults leading Abercrombie & Fitch and the tabloid industry. According to a new study out of the University of Leeds, children as young as four have internalized the idea that overweight means bad.
The researchers spoke with 126 children between the ages of 4 and 7 years old. Each child was read a picture book featuring a character named Alfie. In different versions of the story, Alfie was normal-weight, overweight or in a wheelchair. After hearing the story, the kids were asked whether they would want to make friends with Alfie and instructed to rate the character in several other ways.
According to the New York Daily News, only one out of the 43 children who heard the overweight Alfie version of the story said that they'd befriend him. They also rated fat Alfie as less likely than normal-weight Alfie to get invited to parties, be happy with his looks, win a race or excel in school. These same results held true when the researchers did the experiment with a female version of the character, Alfina.
The children also rated wheelchair Alfie and Alfina's abilities and feelings more negatively than the slimmer version of the characters, but not as negatively as overweight Alfie and Alfina. "This research confirms young children’s awareness of the huge societal interest in body size," Professor Andrew Hill, one of the study authors, told The Daily Mail.
Hill also told The Daily Mail that the children's gender did not impact their feelings, although older subjects were more likely to have great fat prejudice. "I think we have an underlying social commentary about weight and morals and that the morality of people is based on their shape," Hill said. "I think that is very powerful, and kids are sensitive to it."
This is just the latest study indicating that young kids internalize stereotypes and negative feelings about fat. A 2010 study found that 3- to 5-year-old girls were more likely to choose a thin or average-sized Candyland piece than a fat one, making disparaging statements about the rejected piece like, "She is fat. I don't want to be that one." And not only do children express prejudice toward others, they turn those prejudices onto themselves.
"[Fat prejudice] is such a strong cultural idea that children are going to start picking up on it immediately, just like gender and what it is to be properly feminine," Dickinson College professor Amy Farrell, author of "Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture," told CNN in March 2012.
The reality is that we live in a world where 3, 5 and 7-year-olds are terrified of being branded as "fat." If that's not an indication that something needs to change, we don't know what is.