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.


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