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A Thinly Veiled Problem

Seaver College psychology professor Jennifer Harriger finds that a girl’s obsession with her weight begins earlier than you might imagine.

Think about the last time you listened to the radio—chances are you heard a commercial jingle for weight-loss surgery. And try to recall the last time you went to a clothes store—the mannequins modeling the clothes were almost certainly idealized representations of real people, the women skimmed down, the men buffed up. Now try to recall the last time you looked in the mirror. Did you perhaps insult your own body with a disparaging comment about an expanding gut or loss of muscle tone?

It’s nearly impossible to escape the barrage of images and scenarios perpetuating the ideal body type, but little research has been done to examine how the accumulation of these minor, everyday instances impacts very young children and their perception of weight-related issues. What Jennifer Harriger, assistant professor of psychology at Seaver College, discovered in her recent study of preschool girls is that those as young as age 3 are not only aware of the “thin ideal,” but they also believe in and perpetuate negative stereotypes about people who do not fall into the ideal spectrum of body size.

“I was shocked that children so young seemed to have such strong beliefs about overweight individuals,” says Harriger, who published the study in the psychological journal Sex Roles, along with three fellow researchers.

In one of the study’s exercises, a researcher played a popular board game, such as Chutes and Ladders or Candyland, with one of the 55 preschool girls in the study. The researcher let them choose one of three character pieces to move around the board: a thin character, an average figure, or an overweight one. “Their comments really surprised me," Harriger recalls. “A lot of the 3-year-olds said to me, ‘I hate her; she’s fat.’ Or, ‘her stomach is big; I don’t want to be her.’ That was really concerning to me, that children so young already had such strong beliefs about what it means to be overweight.”

Harriger’s concern about the impact of the thin ideal in our society is backed up by well-known examples of extreme behavior, such as models Isabelle Caro and Ana Carolina Reston, who both recently passed away due to complications from anorexia nervosa. The media or fashion industries occasionally attempt to ease concerns about the standardized “ideal” figure of sizes 0-2—such as designer Mark Fast’s inclusion of “plus size” models at last year’s London Fashion Week—yet women on the runways get skinnier every year and actresses get smaller as their fame expands.

Adults and adolescents have more of an understanding of the media and other factors that contribute to the thin ideal whereas children don’t really understand,” Harriger explains. “Research shows that those who have internalized the thin ideal are at higher risk for body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, or even depression. So my concern is that today’s children might now be at an even higher risk than adults.”

The idea to study very young girls actually came from interacting with adolescents and women battling eating disorders. Harriger had completed her bachelor’s degree in biology from West Chester University and her master’s degree in clinical and health psychology from Drexel University, and was working at an inpatient facility in Pennsylvania for women in the throes of anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating disorders. People develop eating disorders for a variety of complex reasons, but Harriger was struck by a common revelation.

Jennifer Harriger - Pepperdine Magazine“One thing that came up over and over again with the clients I treated was that as long as they could remember, they hated their bodies,” she comments. “And some of them talked about having this feeling at a really young age. So I became interested in why this might develop at such a young age and what are things we could do for kids this young?”

When she dug a little deeper, Harriger found there was very little research about preschool-age children, who are old enough to register body stereotypes but too young to adequately express themselves in a self-aware manner. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, she pursued a PhD in developmental psychology from the University of New Mexico and after receiving her diploma, she set about creating this study of preschool girls.

She collected a random sample of 55 girls ages 3 to 5 from Albuquerque, some of whom had been socialized at preschool while others remained at home with parents and siblings. The board game set-up was designed to assess the emotional investment the girls had with whichever character pieces they selected to play the game. An overwhelming majority of the girls in the study chose the thin playing piece over the average or large pieces. When asked if they would trade their piece with the researcher, over half the girls (52.6 percent) who had chosen thin characters were unwilling to trade their game piece for an average or fat-bodied piece.

Harriger and her study coauthors also highlighted in their findings: “It is noteworthy that we could not perform the reverse analysis to test the willingness of preschool girls to switch the fat-body game piece for the thin-body game piece, as so few girls initially selected the fat-body game piece as their character to play the game with.”

“This got at the idea of whether it was something that was actually important to the child,” Harriger notes, deducing that girls who had not internalized the thin ideal might be more willing to “become” a larger character for the board game. Instead, a surprising number of the girls refused to even touch the fat pieces.

In the second experiment of the study, Harriger and her colleagues presented the girls with a sheet of paper displaying three female figures of different body sizes: very thin, average, and very fat. The children were then asked to point to the figure they thought best matched one of 12 descriptors, including positive traits such as nice, smart, and neat, and negative traits such as mean, stupid, and sloppy. The findings were as discouraging as Harriger expected.

“Previous research has found that children as young as 3 endorse the same stereotypes that adults endorse, and will say things like, ‘overweight people are mean or have fewer friends’ compared to average or thin people,” Harriger explains. The results showed that, overwhelmingly, thin figures were appraised with positive attributes, and that even average figures accumulated more negative adjectives than the thin image.

Harriger says that most of the children were themselves average size and that at 3 years old were not necessarily making the sizable leap from identifying and objectifying the body shapes of others to actually critiquing their own. “I think there are a lot of concerns for girls who don’t conform to the ideal body type,” Harriger adds. “They might be at high risk for appearance-related teasing from other children, children who have internalized the thin ideal.”

A plethora of psychological studies point to the fact that children who endure criticism, teasing, and especially bullying, are also more likely to develop body dissatisfaction and eating disorders as they reach adolescence and adulthood. Harriger hopes that her study, which was picked up and distributed by Fox News and other media outlets last fall, might help raise awareness among adults that their words and behaviors can impact young children. She highlights the all-too-common problem of women loudly and publicly espousing aggressively negative comments about their own figures.

“A mother looking in the mirror and saying ‘I look so disgusting today, I need to lose weight’. . . well, the child is picking up on that,” affirms Harriger. “Parents often think their child is too young to pick up on that, but they’re not.”

Although approximately 1 million U.S. males are afflicted, females are 10 times more likely to suffer from eating disorders, says the National Eating Disorders Association. Harriger is now collecting data to replicate the study with boys in an effort to learn how preschool children of both genders are affected by the thin ideal. “The research uses figures of other boys to see if they are as aware of body stereotypes as girls, asks if they have internalized these stereotypes, and if so, does it occur in the same way as with girls?”

Another future project Harriger is considering involves developing programs or a curriculum with parents and schools to help train children to recognize that they are not merely the sum of their parts. She hopes that by reaching children with that message while they are still young, it may help to balance out society’s predominant “thin ideal.”

“It’s much easier to start with very young children and teach them ways of thinking than it is to try to reverse what has been learned already when they get older,” Harriger says. “I know it’s a cliché—but what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside, and our society has lost sight of that.”