Your tearful second-grader bolts off the school bus, through the door, and into your waiting arms. You immediately sense something is wrong. Very, very wrong.
You stroke her hair, coaxing her to share what's upset her. “Nobody likes me,” she sobs. “I don’t have any friends. Help me, Mommy. What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me?”
You quickly suck in your breath in a thinly-disguised attempt to soothe yourself and put on a brave, confident face. You'd hoped it wouldn’t go down like this, but in the back of your mind, you knew it was coming. It was just a matter of time.
You haven’t seen a birthday party invitation since the beginning of the school year. The playdate requests that flooded your bubbly daughter’s engagement calendar in pre-school have dried up to nothing. This year’s growing list of sketchy, telltale excuses used to decline invitations for weekend playdates gnaw their way to the front of your mind. You cringe, remembering all the unanswered let’s-get-back-in-touch texts you’ve sent to other parents in your daughter’s social circle over the past several months.
You pour her favorite soda over a dish of ice cream and push it across the kitchen island. You offer reassurances that it’s all going to be okay, even though you’re not sure it will be. You tickle an empty smile out of her, but there’s not even the tiniest glimmer of genuine hope in the eyes of the darling little girl you adore. Why can’t those kids see her in the same way you do?
Back up ten seconds, Mom. Hit the pause button. What if that feel-better ice cream soda is adding fuel to the fire rather than quenching the flames?
Research published today in Pediatrics, the official journal of the Academy of Pediatrics, suggests that children as young as nine harbor an implicit bias against overweight peers. In other words, perhaps unbeknownst even to themselves, elementary school-aged children associate negative characteristics with children who are overweight.
Hailing from Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and Sweden’s Karolinksa Institutet, the researchers employed an ingenious method of assessing a very quiet type form of discriminatory attitude called implicit bias. The challenge is that implicit bias is next to impossible to measure directly. Fortunately, the researchers thought like parents, and they did what had to be done. They tricked the kids into believing they were rating fractals rather than peers.
Even children are aware of answers they are “supposed” to give. If the researchers blatantly asked children if overweight kids were mean, unintelligent, untrustworthy, or make poor friends, many kids will simply provide the socially appropriate answer they believe they are “supposed” to give. The socially appropriate answer, of course, goes something like this: “being overweight doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
To get around this tendency for kids to try to give “right” answers, the researchers were sneaky. Instead of asking the kids (there were 100 in their sample of nine- to 11-year-olds) if a photo of an overweight child was “good” or “bad,” they asked the kids whether a photo of a meaningless design called a fractal was “good” or “bad.” The trick was that just before they had the kids rate the merit of the fractal image, they showed them a photo of a child.
The age, race, and sex of the children in the photographs, all factors which could be potentially bias-inducing on their own, were held constant. The photos of the children in the child-fractal pairs differed only with respect to weight.
The results confirmed what most parents of overweight children already sensed, even if they didn’t have proof. Their kids are operating at a social disadvantage straight out of the gate. In the study, children demonstrated a 5.4 percent implicit bias rate against overweight children. When shown a healthy weight child just prior to the fractal image, kids rated 64 percent of the fractal images as “good.” In contrast, when shown an overweight child just prior to that same fractal image, kids rated only 59 percent of them as “good.”
Interestingly, among the children who rated the photo/fractal pairs, those who were at a healthy weight demonstrated a more pronounced bias than child-raters who were underweight and overweight. Perhaps this points to experiential empathy at work. Children who have experienced weight-related biases personally may be less apt to harbor those same biases against others.
Children aren’t the only ones who harbor an implicit bias against people who are overweight. Even medical professionals in the field of obesity treatment have demonstrated a similar, significant bias.
There are important implications of this study for parents of children across the weight spectrum. Parents of healthy-weight children can expose their children to examples of overweight children and adults who exhibit positive characteristics. They can discuss these biases outright, and encourage their children to talk about their feelings toward overweight peers. Perhaps most importantly, parents can take great care to avoid subtly broadcasting any inherent biases they may hold toward people who are overweight.
For parents of overweight children, the same suggestions apply, but there are additional steps you can take that may help your child even more. If your child is expressing significant distress, if you think your child may be depressed or anxious about his or her weight, and especially if you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, consider employing the services of a child psychologist. They can be incredibly helpful for your child to develop coping strategies and social skills, and can act as a sounding board for your child when he or she needs a professionally trained, listening ear.
Also consider consulting with your pediatrician. Does he or she recommend any dietary or exercise changes to your child’s routine? If so, frame those changes as positively as you can when you implement them. Avoid shaming your child for his or her body or food choices. Instead, lavish praise when she chooses an apple over an ice cream soda or he decides to go out for a bike ride rather than play video games.
Biases can be battled. Overweight children can overcome even the most obstinate obstacles. And the adults in their world, including parents, teachers, and health care providers, can lead the way by joining with them to establish a healthier, happier, more inclusive world.