Kids as young as 4 think thin is beautiful, suggesting that media associations of thinness with beauty sink in early.
The findings, published in March in the journal Body Image, aren't the first to show that kids develop opinions on body weight early. One study, published in 2010 in the journal Sex Roles, found that kids between the ages of 3 and 5 favor thinness. Young kids also consume lots of media: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that 70 percent of preschoolers watch more TV and play more video and computer games than recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In the new study, Australian researchers asked 160 children and young adults to rank the attractiveness of female bodies. The participants were shown six images of the same black-clad woman of normal body weight according to Body Mass Index (BMI), a weight-height ratio used to indicate a person's fatness. In five of the images, the image had been altered the make the woman look thinner or fatter (her face was blotted out with a dark square).
Even the youngest 4-year-olds in the study ranked the "most beautiful" body as significantly thinner than the normal-weight original. On average, participants thought the prettiest body was the one that shaved about 5 percent off the width of the original. Meanwhile, the body ranked "most normal" was the original normal-BMI image.
Given findings that media exposure is linked to body-image issues in adults, one might expect kids to become progressively more enamored with thinness as they grow up and watch more TV and movies, wrote study author Felicity Brown, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Queensland. Instead, young kids were as likely as adults to prefer thinner women. Children may have already gotten the media message about thinness before they even enter school, Brown wrote.
The findings raise concerns for children's own body images, given that 62 percent of adults in Australia end up overweight or obese according to a 2007-2008 national health survey. There are also implications for discrimination against the overweight, Brown wrote, especially considering earlier research finding that kids as young as 7 see obese people as "contagious" and best avoided. The psychological toll of a fat stigma can worsen an overweight person's health even further, past research shows.
And while losing weight may have a health benefit for those who are overweight or obese, a fixation on thinness also comes with a price tag — distorted body image has been linked with anorexa nervosa and other eating disorders, which are on the rise in kids.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.