Preschool Girls Internalizing Body Image Pressure

by | December 2, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

The Anabell Foundation satirizes super-skinny dolls with their "Perfect Girl" ad

Reading the paper today the headline: “Young girls believe thinner is better” caught my eye. In an experiment similar to the famous 1954 Clarks’ doll study that found young children preferred white dolls to black dolls, researchers at Pepperdine University in California recently completed a study that found girls as young as three idealized thinness.

In one study researchers asked the girls to match 12 adjectives (cute, mean, ugly, etc.) to figurines made to look like a thin, average, and large woman. Participants ended up assigning 1.24 negative words and 2.69 positive words to the thin figure on average, while the largest figure received 3.09 negative and 1.24 positive words.

In another study where girls were asked to pick which of the figurines to use as a game piece in Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, 69% chose the skinniest one, 63% of whom refused to trade for a larger figure when asked.

It’s discouraging to see that girls that young are already picking up on the thin ideal and the weight bias reinforced by TV shows, dolls and other children’s toys, and advertising.

It’s probably too easy to just blame Barbie. In one of my Women’s Studies classes 34/35 students had played with Barbies as kids and all were now supposedly feminists shunning body image ideals. But despite my feminism and the fact I volunteer blog for About-Face, whose mission is to raise awareness of girls’ and women’s body image issues, I still feel the pressure to watch my weight and I struggle not to feel bad about myself when I realize I’m not fitting into my skinny jeans as well as I used to. These pressures are insidious and this study shows they’re strongly inculcated at a very young age.

So what’s to be done? The study’s authors suggest the following:

I’d add that we need to support groups like About-Face, who call out the worst offenders in sexist advertising and address the gendered beliefs that underpin the thin ideal, like the belief that woman’s primary function is to be desirable to men, and that she can only be desirable if she’s thin.

-Jarrah


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  • Allison

    That’s just the stupidest doll every I’m 11 and ik that it’s wrong that’s fucked up ur just teaching younger girls that skinny is better and then they’ll probably wanna be skinny so nice going now you probably made people thinking that there not perfect the way they are and that’s cruel and if u have kids then ur just a foul 😡😡😡😡😡😡😡

  • http://ca.linkedin.com/in/nathanielbassett/ Nathaniel

    A relatively well thought out article, but ultimately lacks a critical examination of the psychology of children. Body image is important, and ultimately universal, even the most beautiful question their appearances, and only the most arrogant people (with or without the body to match) join the exclusive club of a perfect self-perception–a delusion not so easily mistaken for this elusive ‘confidence.’

    Children are not only impressionable, but are at constant odds with reality. They project themselves onto others, create new identities, and use their imagination to slowly begin to align the complicated nuance of ‘humanity’ with social etiquette, behaviour, and solidify a more permanent identity. It’s no shock that children [age 3] would choose a Caucasian barbie, when to them the vast majority of their world is white. Now unless the study also weighed each child, took visual note of the shape of their surrounding individuals of authority, as well as had an proportionate and anatomically correct figure as a control, then the study is foolishly arbitrary and designed specifically to return the data that young girls are already programmed by society before they even hit kindergarten.

    • Jarrah Hodge

      So the Clark doll test was actually carried out on black children in segregated schools, so their “whole world” was certainly not white. That said, there were some limitations with the study, plus it’s obviously dated now, which is why there are several newer examples that show little has changed and much has stayed the same, as well as expanding on the results. So back on the main topic of this piece, which is on internalized body image issues, for example, a study this year found little girls had less career ambition after playing with Barbie – regardless of Barbie’s job – than after playing with Mrs. Potato Head. 2011 research from Pepperdine University found girls ages three to five were more likely to characterize the thinner figures as nice, smart, cute, neat, and quiet, while heavier figures were characterized as mean, stupid, friendless, sloppy, ugly, and loud.

      And Meta-studies like Grabe and Ward (2008) found a clear link between media consumption and body dissatisfaction in girls and adolescents, leading to disordered eating.

      I don’t think you can say though that the psychology of children wasn’t addressed in any of these experiments, which are all from psychology departments at major universities and published in peer-reviewed journals.

    • http://gender-focus.com/ Jarrah

      So the Clark doll test was actually carried out on black children in segregated schools, so their “whole world” was certainly not white.

      That said, there were some limitations with the study, plus it’s obviously dated now, which is why there are several newer examples that show little has changed and much has stayed the same.

      So back on the main topic of this piece, which is on internalized body image issues, for example, a study this year found little girls had less career ambition after playing with Barbie – regardless of Barbie’s job – than after playing with Mrs. Potato Head. 2011 research from Pepperdine University found girls ages three to five were more likely to characterize the thinner figures as nice, smart, cute, neat, and quiet, while heavier figures were characterized as mean, stupid, friendless, sloppy, ugly, and loud.

      And Meta-studies like Grabe and Ward (2008) found a clear link between media consumption and body dissatisfaction in girls and adolescents, leading to disordered eating.

      I don’t think you can say though that the psychology of children wasn’t addressed in any of these experiments, which are all from psychology departments at major universities and published in peer-reviewed journals.

      • http://ca.linkedin.com/in/nathanielbassett/ Nathaniel

        Jumping right into it–as I’m sure any child who plays with Lego would be more likely to be spatially oriented and prefer tactile professions. If the fact that playing with a Barbie is affecting a child’s career ambitions, regardless of Barbie’s profession, it would be reasonable to assume that playing with any figurine would have the same affect. Again, unless you’re comparing results to anatomically correct figures, this study only proves that the function of a toy is correlated to the career ambition of a child. None of which has anything to do with body-image.

        And as for Jenniger Harriger’s study, there’s nothing to indicate the weight of the child at the time of the experiment. Anyone studying child development would have pointed out how important it would be to measure a child’s investment based on the likeness of figurines to the participants. If you tell someone to be something they’re not–and they haven’t been conditioned to conform (as most young children haven’t yet) they will reject the notion of identifying with personally unlikable qualities.

        The psychology was clearly not addressed in these studies, because the studies themselves seek to verify a currently held premise of the psychology of influence. Psychological experiments require incredibly devious, and strict experiments to accurately measure a phenomenon, with too many variables the test proves nothing. After reading into your examples, it’s my conclusion that they’re co-opted to prove something other than their actual results.