Think your 3 year old never gives a thought to being fat or thin?  You might be surprised.  A new study on preschoolers shows that children as young as 3 are emotionally invested to being thin. The finding is troubling, since the pressure to be thin has been linked with a higher risk of eating disorders and depression, said Jennifer Harriger of Pepperdine University in California, who led the study.

Harriger also expresses concern that a negative view of overweight people can lead to unkind behaviors. “Weight-related teasing has also been linked to a variety of negative outcomes. 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 US regions are warranted: "It is impossible to generalize the findings from one study to the remainder of the US population."

Past research suggests that young children know about anti-fat messages, but whether they were able to internalize those ideas were unknown.

In the study, children were asked to associate 12 adjectives, six positive and six negative, with 3 figures identical in every way, except their weight.  It was found that an average of 3.1 negative words and 1.2 positive words were used to describe overweight 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.

When presented with a couple of board games to play, the children’s emotional investment in a body-size type was measured. 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 written down 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 noted some strong responses.

"Interestingly, several participants were reluctant to even touch the fat game piece. 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.

Promoting a healthy body

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, adds that research has shown some girls are dieting by age 6 to control their weight.

To keep kids healthy on the inside and out, here are some tips Holm-Denoma offers 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.
  • 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.
  • Model healthy eating habits and exercising for your children.