Melbourne | Moms, take note! Your child may pick up on your prejudice against obese people at an age as young as three years old, according to a new study. Researchers suggest that children begin to reflect the attitudes of those around them much earlier than thought.
Anti-fat prejudice is associated with social isolation, depression, psychiatric symptoms, low self-esteem and poor body image, said Ted Ruffman professor at University of Otago’s Department of Psychology in New Zealand. Previous research had indicated anti fat prejudice could be seen in pre school children aged slightly more than three and a half years old and was well established in five to ten year olds.
But the research by Ruffman and his team suggests these attitudes have an even earlier genesis. The team showed 70 infants and toddlers pairs of photos of people one in which the person was obese, the other where the person was in a normal weight range. Their faces were covered to put the focus on the body type. At the same time they used questionnaires to gauge the mother’s attitude to obesity.
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, said Ruffman. 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 said.
The researchers also looked at other potential factors such as parental body mass index (BMI), education and even children’s TV viewing but these were unrelated to the sort of figure the child preferred to look at. Ruffman said it is not meant to be a mother blaming exercise, but does indicate how early children begin to absorb and display 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, Ruffman said. 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, he said.
What is surprising, is that children are picking up on these things so early, he said. Weight-based prejudice is causing significant social, psychological, and physical harms to those stigmatised, said study co-author Kerry O’Brien, Associate Professor at the Monash University in Australia. 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, O’Brien said.
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