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PROBLEM: Public health officials spend a lot of time trying to figure out to how to be against obesity, as a disease, without being against obese people. (Or at least, most of them do.) It's probably safe to say that most of this complexity is lost on children, who pick up on societal cues as to what is socially acceptable and what is not.
METHODOLOGY: Andrew Hill and colleagues at the University of Leeds designed three versions of a simple story book about two friends, Alfie and Thomas, whose cat gets stuck in a tree. In one version, both Alfie and Thomas were "normal." In the two others, Thomas remained the same but Alfie was presented as either overweight or disabled. The books were read to 126 schoolchildren, ranging in age from 4 to 6 years old, who were then asked to rate Alfie and Thomas on a number of attributes. The procedure was repeated with female characters -- Alfina and Holly -- for another group of 150 children.
RESULTS: The children overwhelmingly decided that fat Alfie and wheelchair Alfie would be less likely to win in a race against Thomas (which is not entirely unreasonable). However, they also assumed that fat Alfie was less likely to do well in school, to be happy with the way he looks, or to get invited to parties. They rated him as more likely to be naughty and as having fewer friends than Thomas to play with. Their "rejection" of the fat character was consistent for his female counterpart, and was not influenced by the children's gender. One lone child, out of 43 who saw the version of the book in which Alfie was fat, said he'd chose him as a friend over Thomas, and only two out of the thirty students shown fat Alfina said they wanted to be her friend.
Things were better, if not great, for wheelchair Alfie. Aside from being perceived as physically slow, he was also assumed to be less likely than Thomas to do good school work or to get invited to parties.
IMPLICATIONS: Kids are cruel and quick to reject those who are different from them, but we usually say that's because they don't know any better. That's why so much of elementary school is spend learning to love and accept all kinds of people. But that they were much harsher critics of the fat character than the one with another -- and less common -- physical difference suggests that at their young age, they've already absorbed an upsetting message: that fat is a negative indicator of a person's character, and that overweight people are undesirable as friends and as people.
The full study was presented at the European Congress on Obesity.