School & District Management

Children Learn Early to Discriminate Against Overweight Peers

By Ross Brenneman — May 17, 2013 1 min read
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New studies released this week show researchers have found that children enter school with prejudices against obese peers.

In two related studies, researchers at Leeds University, in the United Kingdom, found that by the time children hit 1st grade, they already have negative preconceptions about other children based on weight.

In the first study, 126 children, averaging just over 5 years old, read a story about Alfie and Thomas. The book came in three different versions, however, with the only difference being the illustration of Alfie. In one version, he was stunningly average, thin but not wiry, not too tall, not too short. In another, Alfie was overweight. In the third, he was in a wheelchair.

(For the illustrations used, here’s the press release.)

The second study mostly repeated the conditions of the first, only with female characters, Alfina and Holly.

In each, children had to afterward choose which of the two characters best demonstrated certain character traits. Who had higher self-confidence about looks? Who had more friends? Who was more likely to misbehave? And who, if you had to choose, would you rather have as a friend?

Poor fat Alfie continually lost out to Thomas, and fat Alfina lost out to Holly. (“Fat Alfie” was the moniker the researchers chose when describing the results.)

“These responses are early indications of the views accepted as typical of older children and which may underpin weight-related victimization of peers,” the study concludes.

Leeds released the study just as news comes from Chicago of a suburban high school separating students into different groups in physical education classes based on fitness level. Or, to be undiplomatic, the school created a “fat gym,” which contains roughly half the school’s children. Supporters argue that overweight kids stand the risk of teasing whether they’re separated out or not, so they might as well be given the extra help. Critics of the policy say it stigmatizes children.

And indeed, separating students by physical ability might also serve to reinforce the pre-existing notions that the Leeds study show to occur. When a child’s peers consign him or her to a certain role of being the big, slow kid, perhaps the child eventually accepts it—fairly or not—especially if that’s how the child’s been judged since starting school.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.