When a Little Baby Fat Is … Too Much

How to help your son or daughter through the rough patches of bias toward those who are overweight

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 and coax her to share what’s upsetting 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?”

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You 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, and school’s already been in session for several weeks. The playdate requests that flooded your bubbly daughter’s engagement calendar in preschool have dried up to … nothing. 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.

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You pour her favorite soda over a dish of ice cream and push it across the kitchen island. You share reassurances it’s all going to be OK, 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 hope in the eyes of your darling little girl. Why can’t those kids see her in the same way you do?

Back up 10 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 recently in Pediatrics, the official journal of the Academy of Pediatrics, suggests that children as young as nine years old harbor an implicit bias against overweight peers. So in other words, perhaps unbeknownst even to themselves, elementary school-aged children associate negative characteristics with kids who are overweight.

Related: The Biggest Cause of Our Kids’ Weight Gain

Hailing from Duke University of Durham, North Carolina, and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, the researchers employed an ingenious method of assessing a very quiet 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.

Even children are aware of answers they are “supposed” to give. If the researchers blatantly asked them if overweight kids were mean, unintelligent, untrustworthy, or poor friends, many kids will simply provide the socially appropriate answer — which goes something like this: “Being overweight doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”

To get around this tendency, 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.

Children who have experienced weight-related biases may be less apt to harbor those same biases against others.

The age, race, and sex of the children in the photos, all factors which could potentially be 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, kids 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, of course. Even medical professionals in the field of obesity treatment have demonstrated a similar and significant bias.

There are important implications of this study for parents of kids across the weight spectrum. Parents of healthy-weight kids can expose their children to examples of overweight children and adults who exhibit positive characteristics. They can discuss these biases outright and encourage kids 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.

Related: How Unfit Kids Could Compromise Our Nation

For parents of overweight children, the same suggestions apply, but there are additional steps to take that may help your child even more. If your child is expressing significant distress, and if you think your child may be depressed or anxious about his weight — and especially if you suspect your child may have an eating disorder — consider employing the services of a child psychologist. These professionals can be incredibly helpful in terms of helping your child to develop coping strategies and social skills, and can act as a sounding board for your child when she needs a professionally trained, listening ear.

Also, consult with your pediatrician. Does she recommend any dietary or exercise changes to your child’s routine? If so, frame those changes positively. Avoid shaming a child for his body size or shape, or for food choices. Instead, praise your child for choosing an apple over an ice-cream soda or a bike ride rather than video game play.

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.

Michele Blood is a freelance writer with a passion for children’s literature. Based in Flemington, New Jersey, she leverages her background in psychology in her work for publishers, businesses and NPOs.

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