An experiment reveals children would rather not be friends with the “fat kid.”
Researchers from the University of Leeds (England) used a storybook model, featuring character prototypes with different body types and handicaps – drawn as overweight, normal weight, or disabled – to test the subconscious feelings and responses of children.
The study, led by Professor Andrew Hill from the Leeds Institute of Health Sciences, examined how young children rated the presented options.
Participants, 150 primary school (early elementary school aged) students in the UK, were given storybooks covering the same plotline – three separate children dealing with their cat being stuck in a tree – using color illustrations and a simple text narrative. The only difference between each book was the primary character.
After reading the story, the kids were asked to rate the characters Alfie (overweight) and Thomas (normal weight) based on several attributes and behaviors, and again, this time incorporating a normal weight Alfie in a wheelchair.
As we’ve seen children can, at times, seem tactlessly cruel or blatantly honest when expressing their opinion. So when investigators asked which character the kids most identified with as someone they’d likely befriend, it was evident the overweight figure was seen as the least popular of the three.
The children projected a clear bias, voicing negative views about the fictionally fat character. Additionally, children favored Thomas, the average kid, over both the overweight and normal-weight wheelchair-bound incarnations of Alfie. Only one of 43 children opted to befriend ample Alfie over typical Thomas.
The participants expressed their assumptions. Fat Alfie was considered less likely to win a race, do well in school, be less confident with his appearance, or get invited to parties, and instead was more likely to be a troublemaker. Wheelchair Alfie was also rated less likely to do well in school academically and would be rejected from parties.
When a second group of children were presented with a female version of the same story, with Holly (normal) and Alfina (heavy), only two of the 30 kids chose to befriend Alfina. Regardless of the character’s gender, the heavier child was universally seen as least accepted when compared to the average and disabled examples. The child’s own gender made no difference on their choices, according to the researchers.
Although there were some negative discrepancies in reference to the disabled child, the disparity was not as notably significant.
According to Professor Hill, “This research confirms young children’s awareness of the huge societal interest in body size,” as kids have taken on a negative association with fatness and characterizing its penalties in terms of appearance, academics, and popularity – being socially ostracized.
These results may explain why, as children age, they audaciously victimize their heavier peers more and more.
The results of the study were presented at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Liverpool.
[Image via Shutterstock]