A small study recently showed that girls as young as 3 are feeling the pressure to be thin. In fact, some of them even showed a very negative view of “fat people,” in some cases avoiding touching a game piece shaped like an overweight person.
Though fascinating, the results are quite alarming. Though it’s important to note that this study involved only 55 girls, a replication of the study had a similar outcome.
The lead researcher, Jennifer Harriger of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and colleagues had to get creative in order to measure that internalization of the “thin ideal” and “anti-fat beliefs,” as they were working with such young subjects.
Researchers used figures of various body types and asked girls to pick the ones they’d want to play with or to have as a best friend—the thin figures were the ones most commonly selected. Participants also played a board game and were asked to select one of the playing pieces specifically designed to represent different levels of body fatness—to assess the girls’ emotional investment in thinness, researchers coded their reactions to being asked to switch to one of the “fat” pieces.
“Interestingly, several participants were reluctant to even touch the fat game piece,” said Harriger. “For example, one child selected the thin piece as the girl she wanted to ‘be’ to play the game. When I presented her with the fat piece and asked her if she was willing to switch, she crinkled her nose and she reached around my hand, avoiding touching the fat piece altogether, picked up the average-size piece and said, ‘No, I won’t switch with you, but I will be this one instead.'”
A few other choice comments: “I hate her, she has a fat stomach,” or “She is fat. I don’t want to be that one.”
Yikes! Though it’s hard to quantify these results, it’s pretty scary to think about 3-year-olds thinking and saying these things at all. It makes me a little sad to think about how deeply these kinds of thoughts and feelings can become ingrained—not to mention the increased potential for disordered eating behavior.
“I think that the current research at least suggests that very young girls understand that society values thinness quite highly,” said Jill Holm-Denoma, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Denver. She added, “My guess is that preschool girls are pretty susceptible to internalizing the thin ideal and perhaps doing things to stay thin.”
You can read more specifics about the study here.