Toddlers as young as two years old are able to pick up on their mothers’ anti-fat prejudices, according to a new study led by the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Prior research has shown that anti-fat prejudice is evident in preschool children aged slightly more than three and a half years old and is well-established in five to 10-year-olds. But the new research suggests that these attitudes may have an even earlier onset.
For the current study, the researchers showed 70 infants and toddlers photos of two people; one person in the photo was obese and the other person was of normal weight. The persons’ faces were covered to keep the focus on the body type. The researchers also used questionnaires to gauge the mother’s attitude toward 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 Professor Ted Ruffman from Otago’s Department of Psychology.
“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.”
The researchers considered other potential factors that could play a role in this prejudice, such as parental BMI, education, and children’s TV viewing but these were found to be unrelated to the sort of figure the child preferred to look at. Ruffman said the study is not meant to be a mother-blaming exercise, but it 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,” he says.
Ruffman said that “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. What is surprising, is that children are picking up on these things so early.”
Study co-author Dr. Kerry O’Brien from Monash University noted that “weight-based prejudice is causing significant social, psychological, and physical harms to those stigmatized. 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.”
Source: University of Otago