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Study: Toddlers learn fat shaming from their mothers

"What is surprising, is that children are picking up on these things so early," study author Ted Ruffman said.

By Brooks Hays
Study: Toddlers learn fat shaming from their mothers
Toddlers as young as 11 months can pick up on the anti-fat attitudes of their mothers. Photo by Solis Images/Shutterstock

DUNEDIN, New Zealand, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- As obesity rates rise around the world, so have social stigmas. Studies show obesity prejudice and discrimination are increasingly common.

And now new research shows such prejudice is a learned behavior that can be picked up while young.

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In a new study, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, behavioral scientists in New Zealand proved toddlers as young as 32 months adopted anti-fat attitudes from their mothers.

Researchers at the University of Otago showed toddlers pictures of people with their faces blurred -- some obese, some thin. Younger toddlers tended to prefer looking at larger bodies, while toddlers 11 months and older preferred thinness.

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Meanwhile, the toddlers' parents were given questionnaires to guage their attitudes toward obesity. The children of parents with the most anti-fat attitudes were more likely to prefer thin bodies.

"It was a high correlation -- the more the mother had expressed anti-fat attitudes in the questionnaire, the more the older toddlers would look away from the obese figure towards the normal weight one," study author Ted Ruffman, a psychology professor at Otago, said in a press release.

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Ruffman and his colleagues looked at other factors -- the mother's body mass index, the amount of time a child spent in front of the TV -- but no correlations surfaced.

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The evidence shows, contrary to what some experts have argued, obesity prejudice is not inherent but learned, which researchers say is consistent with studies on other types of prejudice.

"What is surprising, is that children are picking up on these things so early," Ruffman said.

Anti-fat attitudes aren't just impolite, Ruffman and his colleagues point out. They can also have negative impacts on the physical and mental health of those who are the targets of such prejudice.

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"Weight-based prejudice is causing significant social, psychological, and physical harms to those stigmatised," said co-author Kerry O'Brien, an assistant professor of psychology at Monash University.

"It's driving body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in underweight populations; and social isolation, avoidance of exercise settings, and depression in very overweight populations," O'Brien added. "We need to find ways to address this prejudice."

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