I was reading some fluffy ladies magazines this week (research, you understand!) when I was quite astounded by the way we view people in everyday life. I have young children, and already, by the time they are 5, they already know that they should be ‘thin’ and that why are some of their classmates even thinner than they are.
So, I was really interested to read this study I found, about age differences and body size stereotyping in preschool girls (Harriger, 2014)- 102 girls from the age of three to five were asked to consider twelve adjectives (six positive and six negative), and to allocate one of these adjectives to one of three females they were presented with. One female was very thin, one was very fat and the final female was average size. There were no other differences between these females.
The result, which I suppose should be unsurprising, is that the three, four and five year old girls ALL ascribed more of the negative adjectives to the fat female and the more positive adjectives to the very thin female.
The second part of the study was for the children to look at nine figures (three fat, three thin and three average) and to choose who their first three preferences would be for playmates, and then to choose a best friend from the selection of nine figures.
Children of all ages tended to choose the thin figure as their first choice, a thin or average person for their second choice and had no bias choices when ascribing their third playmate. However, best friend choices always tended to be the thin figure.
Surprisingly, the three year olds showed more of a bias towards thin figures, as opposed to a bias against fat figures- fat prejudice would appear to grow with age.
Now, this study was only in America, with young girls, so the study would need to be replicated world wide and to include boys into the demographic, but it makes for sobering reading, doesn’t it? The fact that even by the age of three, young girls are conditioned to prefer the company, and appearance of thin people.
Another article I read, just this morning, was from the Guardian newspaper, which suggests that thin people are more likely to suffer from dementia than larger people (Bosely, 2015). Wait just a moment. Hang on there- so; being thin might not be a good idea in the long term? So, another article I read, states that being overweight means that you will find it more difficult to get a job, due to fat bias, fearing that fat people are ‘lazy’ (Parry, 2015). Ok, what is going on here then? Am I supposed to be fat or am I supposed to be thin? Which one is it World? Come on, I AM WAITING!!!
Whichever size you are, surely what matters is how people respond to you; and herein lies the problem. People judge people, all the time. We can’t help it. Even the most non-judgemental person in the world has their bad days, or a subject that strikes a chord with them. But what about tolerance? What about caring for others?
The fact that three year old girls find thin people more acceptable than fat people shows a huge flaw in our society- no matter how much we want to be thin, for some people, for whatever reasons, that might just not happen. The same can be said for thin people- perhaps they wish they were a little larger, but can’t put on the weight.
I feel sadness for young people in this technological society- they can’t win. As demonstrated by the two different newspaper articles- you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. When the newspapers get hold of a picture of a celebrity, on the beach, not looking their best, the headlines scream offensive comments about bulges, wobbly thighs, stretch marks and cellulite. The next day, the same celebrity is on the newsstands again, but this time, she is wearing a beautiful dress, showing off how thin she is- and the newspapers mock her for being too thin, and that she should put on more weight.
Our young people are bombarded by this media, 24/7 (yes, when you think your son/daughter is in bed sleeping, they are on Snapchat, Instagram or Oovoo with their friends, sharing pictures and stories and further perpetuating the beauty myth) and it is relentless people! The pressure on our young people, to be thin, to get a job, to get good grades, to get a partner, is immense. Somewhere along the line, we need to give them a break and support them to understand that we are all different and that is ok.
Some people, however, are taking a stand, and saying “NO” to the fat shaming- Plus size models such as Tess Holliday (@Tess_holliday) are standing up for women, in particular, and saying that my shape, your shape, their shape- it’s all ok! #effyourbeautystandards has become a moniker for the disaffected and is gathering momentum, which is vital when fighting societal prejudice!
So perhaps we need to start to normalise bodies at a much younger age- a thigh gap may not be achievable for your body frame, no matter how hard you try. Perhaps, like Kim Kardashian, you will always be a ‘shapely’ figure. Or perhaps you will always be as thin as Nicole Richie. I am not in any way saying that these women are healthy or not, or that they do or do not have issues with food or eating; I am merely commenting on their shape and size. And what I am saying is that both shape types are normal for society- some people are naturally curvy, and some people are naturally very thin.
As with anything, there are varying degrees of normal, whether you are on the lighter side of the scale, or the heavier- what is important, is body confidence and how you feel (health, is of course a big issue and I am not denying it’s importance). We need to ensure that our children are healthy, yes, but also that they see the differences in people, and that all differences are normal. Whether it is your weight, your religion or your sexuality- we are all NORMAL here!
These prejudices are a function of society and as such there is an aspect that you may not have considered. If there is a societal prejudice that an overweight person will be less competent than a thin person, this prejudice will also be held by overweight people, leading to an undermining of self-confidence in their abilities.
So I guess, the challenge for us all, will be to question the way we think about people we know, especially when they are acquaintances, rather than friends, and ask ourselves “Am I really being fair in my mind, whether it is conscious or not, as to what I am thinking and saying to that thin/fat person? Am I really crediting them with the skills that they actually have?” And more to the point, am I being fair to myself? Because this, being kind to yourself and increasing your self-confidence, can be hard to achieve.
Bosely, S. (2015) Society pages, 10 April, [Online], Available: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/10/underweight-people-face-significantly-higher-risk-of-dementia-study-suggests [10 April 2015].
Harriger, J. (2014) ‘Age Differences in Body Size Stereotyping in a Sample of Preschool Girls’, Eating Disorders, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 177-190.
Parry, L. (2015) Mail Online, 8 April, [Online], Available: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3030815/Overweight-needn-t-bother-applying-job-Nearly-half-employers-unlikely-hire-fat-workers-fear-lazy.html [10 April 2015].
* Quote from Montegue Withnail, 1969