Thinner is better. At least that’s what 3 year-old girls think. Thanks to a new study, we now know that preschoolers have a pronounced bias in favor of thin people and go on to develop a Regina George-like disdain of the obese.
It’s no news that there exists a sense of value in women largely predicated on unhealthy cosmetic ideals. According to Girls Inc., 78% of girls under 17 are unhappy with their bodies. And if Barbie’s silent cries are anything to go by, parents have started looking for solutions. With her sales plummeting by 16% in 2014, it could be that they’ve recognized their daughters’ plastic best friend is a bad influence, nudging them towards eating disorders and hollow purse-toting ambitions.
However this new study went a step further and looked into how soon that pro-thin bias develops in children. Here’s a breakdown of the study, highlighted in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest:
“Jennifer Harriger tested 102 girls from the South Western US, aged between three and five. She first asked the girls to consider 12 adjectives (six positive and six negative, including nice, smart, mean stupid) and to allocate each one to whichever of three female figures they felt the adjective was most suited.”
So picture a line-up of female figures standing before these children, one thin, one average and one, sensitively termed, “very fat.” The toddlers in the study, three, four and five years-old, all leaned towards showering the thin figure with praise, while the larger of the three unfortunate contestants was branded with the harshest of adjectives proposed by the researcher.
Then the study got personal, playground style:
“Another test involved the children looking at nine figures (three fat, three average and three thin) and choosing their first three preferences for playmates, and finally to choose their best friend from the selection. Children at all ages tended to choose a thin figure for their first choice, a thin or average for the second choice, with no bias in their third choice. Best friend choices tended to be thin.”
No, oh fat one, you may not sit with us.
Mean girls references aside, studies like this one demonstrate how quickly children absorb aesthetic norms in their environment, and how early they are exposed to them in the first place. So how can we protect children, and especially little girls, from falling into a plastic trap?
Start at home. Jennifer Ponzer, founder of Women in Media & News, argued that “we need media literacy as much as we need to learn to read.” Not only do we need it as much, we need it sooner. Yes, at 3 years-old, little girls are probably not thinking of the latest Paleo diet or a possible case of Celiac. But their vision and understanding of the world around them is already taking shape. If aesthetic biases really are ripe by age 3, then parents and educators need to start defining female self-worth and positive body image for girls a lot sooner than they used to.
For now, we may have rendered her homeless, but somewhere in the world, a disheveled and destitute Barbie is deviously chuckling.