24 November 2015
New research from the University of Otago and Monash University shows that anti-fat prejudice may develop in children as young as 32 months of age and is strongly related to maternal anti-fat attitudes.
Published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the study is the first to examine the relationship of parental anti-fat attitudes and infants/toddlers preferences to obese versus average sized bodies.
"We found that younger infants, around 11 months of age, preferred to look at obese figures, whereas older toddlers around 32 months old, preferred to look at average-sized figures. More importantly we found that the preference for viewing average-sized figures was related to mother anti-fat attitudes" said Professor Ted Ruffman.
The study, involving academics from New Zealand, Australia, and US, references research showing that obesity prejudice and discrimination is on the rise and is associated with social isolation, depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem.
Seventy infants and toddlers were shown photos of obese or average sized figures and their preferences to the images were assessed. In addition parent’s educational level, Body Mass Index (BMI) and children's television viewing time, along with mothers anti-fat prejudice levels were also assessed.
"The preference for average versus obese figures was strongly related to maternal anti-fat prejudice. Other potential factors such as parental BMI, education and even children's television viewing were not related to what sort of figure the child preferred to look at," said Professor Ruffman.
Study co-author Associate Professor Kerry O'Brien from Monash University, said "weight-based stigma has significant social, psychological, and physical harms, particularly for young people. It is driving body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in underweight populations, alongside social isolation, avoidance of exercise and depression in very overweight populations. We need to find ways to address this prejudice and educate our young people to be confident in their bodies."
The research addresses debate regarding the origins of anti-fat prejudice, with some suggesting innate physical fitness preferences may underpin dislike of fat figures, while others suggest the prejudice is learned through the social environment. The results suggest the prejudice is socially learned, which is consistent with other forms of prejudice. However, the research shows that this prejudice is learned very early in life.
Professor Ruffman says it is not meant to be a mother blaming exercise at all, parents live in a society where they are constantly told that obesity is bad so it is little wonder they may portray this to their children, but it does indicate how early children begin to absorb and display the attitudes around them.