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Anti-fat bias shows up in really little kids

A new study uncovers anti-fat prejudice among children as young as 32 months old and finds that these attitudes may come from mom.

“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,” says Professor Ted Ruffman of the University of Otago.

Researchers showed photos of obese or average-sized figures to 70 infants and assessed their preferences. They also assessed parental educational level, Body Mass Index (BMI), and children’s television viewing time, along with mothers anti-fat prejudice levels.

“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,” says Ruffman.

“Weight-based stigma has significant social, psychological, and physical harms, particularly for young people,” says coauthor Kerry O’Brien, an associate professor at Monash University. “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.”

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The research addresses debate about 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, published in the Journal of Child Psychology, 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.

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. The findings do indicate how early children begin to absorb and display the attitudes around them, however.

Source: Monash University

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