Toddlers, those approaching age 3, pick up on the anti-fat attitudes of their mothers and begin showing preferences for people by weight, according to the results of a multinational study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
Bias against people perceived to be obese (i.e., anti-fat prejudice) is common in many social settings, including education, health, and employment. Studies show that this bias is increasing in adults and associated with negative outcomes for those with obesity, including social isolation, depression, psychiatric symptoms, low self-esteem, and poor body image. However, it is not clear how early in life such prejudice forms or the reasons for its development.
Previous research indicates that anti-fat prejudice is present in children slightly older than 3.5 years of age and is well-established in 5- to 10-year-olds.
Now, findings from the new study, titled “Toddlers’ bias to look at average versus obese figures relates to maternal anti-fat prejudice“ and conducted by researchers from New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S., suggest that these attitudes have an even earlier beginning.
The researchers recruited 70 mother-child pairs, divided into four age groups, to participate in a preferential observational study. The children were presented with 10 pairs of average and obese human figures in random order, and their viewing times (preferential looking) for the figures were measured. The researchers also measured mothers’ anti-fat prejudice and education, along with mothers’ and fathers’ body mass index (BMI) and children’s television viewing time.
“What we found is that younger infants, around 11 months of age, preferred to look at obese figures, whereas the older toddler group, around 32 months old, preferred to look at average-sized figures,” Professor Ted Ruffman, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand and study first author, said in a news release. “Furthermore, we found that preference was strongly related to maternal anti-fat prejudice. It was a high correlation — the more the mother had expressed anti-fat attitudes in the questionnaire, the more the older toddlers would look away from the obese figure towards the normal weight one.”
He added the study was not meant to be a mother-blaming exercise, but rather as a way of revealing how early children absorb and show the attitudes of those around them. “It’s just that mothers tend to be the primary caregivers and they are just reflecting wider societal attitudes,” he said.
Professor Ruffman said that “some argue this anti-fat prejudice is innate but our results indicate it is socially learned, which is consistent with findings about other forms of prejudice. What is surprising, is that children are picking up on these things so early.”
Kerry O’Brien, Associate Professor from Monash University in Australia and a study co-author, concluded: “Weight-based prejudice is causing significant social, psychological, and physical harms to those stigmatised. It’s driving body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in underweight populations; and social isolation, avoidance of exercise settings, and depression in very overweight populations. We need to find ways to address this prejudice.”