Even Preschool Girls Favor Being Thin, Study Finds

Girls as young as 3 are already emotionally invested in being thin, to the point where some even will avoid touching game pieces that depict a fat individual, a small study on preschoolers suggests.

The finding is troubling, since the pressure to be thin has been linked with a higher risk of eating disorders and depression, according to lead researcher Jennifer Harriger of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

And a negative view of fat people is no better. "Weight-related teasing has also been linked to a variety of negative outcomes," Harriger said. "Given that our society is currently dealing with an obesity epidemic, this is especially concerning."

While the study involved a group of 55 girls from the southwestern United States, Harriger said preliminary results from a replication of the study in Southern California suggest those girls also want to be thin. She added that studies in other U.S. regions are warranted: "It is impossible to generalize the findings from one study to the remainder of the U.S. population."

The longing to be thin is possibly being paired with strict eating or other behaviors to reach such a goal. "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. Holm-Denoma, who was not involved in the study, added that research has shown some girls are dieting by age 6 to control their weight. 

As such, Holm-Denoma is not surprised by the new findings. "My guess is that preschool girls are pretty susceptible to internalizing the thin ideal and perhaps doing things to stay thin," she told LiveScience.

Thin is in

Harriger and her colleagues looked at thin-ideal internalization, which refers to the extent to which individuals embrace the cultural ideal of a slender body as their own personal standard. Past research suggested young kids are aware of anti-fat beliefs, but whether these children had really internalized the beliefs wasn't known.

And since 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds aren't able to verbalize complex thoughts and feelings, Harriger had to get creative.

To figure out whether the girls had more flattering thoughts about thin types than about fat types, the researchers had the preschoolers (3 to 5 years old) look at three figures identical in every way except for their body size – thin, average and fat. The children had to associate each of 12 adjectives (six positive and six negative adjectives) with a figure.

Here's how the researcher guided the girls: "Point to the girl that you think is/has ____." The positive descriptors included: nice, smart, friends, neat, cute and quiet. The negative descriptors were: mean, stupid, no friends, sloppy, ugly and loud.

An average of 3.1 negative words and 1.2 positive words were used to describe fat figures, compared with an average of 1.2 negative and 2.7 positive adjectives for thin figures.

Then the girls were presented with nine figures, three of each body type, and they had to circle the three they'd most like to play with and one they would want as a best friend. The preschoolers were significantly more likely to choose the thin figure over the other two for a best friend. Similar results showed up for their circle of friends to play with.

Fat game pieces

Finally, the participants played either Chutes and Ladders or Candy Land, two popular board games for this age group. Players got to choose from three different game pieces that had been specially designed for this task by varying only in body type: one was thin, one was average, and one was fat.

To measure kids' emotional investment in a body-size type, after each child chose a game piece, the researcher said, "Wait, I wanted to be that one! How about you be this one?" (If the child had selected a game piece with a thin or average body, the researcher asked to switch it with the fat one; if the child had chosen a fat game piece, the researcher asked to switch it with an average body.)

The girls' responses were coded as: willing to switch (the child immediately said "yes" and expressed no discomfort or unhappiness); reluctant to switch (the child hesitated for more than 5 seconds, refused to make eye contact with the researcher, or looked at parent for guidance); not willing to switch (the child said "no" or shook her head no).

Harriger got some strong responses.

"Interestingly, several participants were reluctant to even touch the fat game piece," Harriger told LiveScience. "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.'"

Other participants made comments such as, "I hate her, she has a fat stomach," or "She is fat. I don't want to be that one."

These results, detailed online Oct. 15 in the journal Sex Roles, suggested the participants had internalized the thin ideal.

Thin trends

Since it's tricky to study body issues in an age group so young, numbers and trends are hard to come by.

In her opinion, Harriger thinks "it is likely that body-size issues have increased in this population [over the past decade], because research suggests that they've increased in older children, adolescents and adults." She added, "Our society is obsessed with thinness and beauty."

Media could be partly to blame.

"Children, even preschool children, are exposed to countless commercials and messages regarding weight loss, dieting products and beauty products. These messages, coupled with the anti-obesity campaign, promote the message that fat is bad," Harriger said. Other factors as well may contribute to body-size issues, she said.

Holm-Denoma also pointed to the media's influence. "It has been shown that consuming large amounts of mainstream media that showcases thin women … leads to the development of body dissatisfaction and internalization of the thin ideal.

"It seems reasonable to predict that young girls who are exposed to thin women in media sources may also develop body dissatisfaction and the desire to be thin," Holm-Denoma said.

Here's to a healthy body

To keep kids healthy on the inside and out, here are some tips for parents and teachers from researchers:

Focus on health, not weight.

Eat together as a family. (Research indicates that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to suffer from eating issues.)

Refrain from making comments about your own or others' weight or body shape. For instance, no talk of "My thighs look so fat" or "I shouldn't eat that cookie, because it has too many calories" when around kids.

Compliment children on things they do, or their personality characteristics, rather than on what they look like.

Limit children's exposure to mainstream media sources that emphasize thin models or put a high value on physical beauty, Holm-Denoma said.

Model healthy eating habits and exercising for your children.

At the end of the day, parents and teachers should make the home/school environment a "fat talk free zone," Harriger said. 

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.