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 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:
- Focus on health, not weight.
- Refrain from making comments about your own or others’ weight or body shape. For instance, no talk of “My thighs look so fat” or “I shouldn’t eat that cookie, because it has too many calories” when around kids.
- Compliment children on things they do, or their personality characteristics, rather than on what they look like.
- Limit children’s exposure to mainstream media sources that emphasize thin models or put a high value on physical beauty
- Model healthy eating habits and exercising for your children.
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.