The other night, I was channel surfing. On TLC? Obese and Pregnant. One channel up, and I found a guy attempting to demolish an inhuman pile of fries on Man Versus Food. And we wonder why kids are weight-obsessed:
The bad news: A new study, reported today in Eurekalert, confirms what everyone already knew, that increasingly younger girls are worried about their weight and appearance. And we do mean young: while the statistics were already depressing, this study dealt with children aged 3-to-6. Indeed, according to a study by University of Central Florida psychology professor Stacey Tantleff-Dunn and doctoral student Sharon Hayes, nearly half of these pre-schoolers "worry about being fat." And a third of those tested said they were dissatisfied with their appearance. According to Vernisha Shepard, a psychotherapist and clinical coordinator for the eating disorders clinic at Texas Children's Hospital"It is getting more and more common for young girls to begin to have concern regarding their bodies," she says. "Girls as young as 8 are now talking about their bodies and show a concern related to their weight and shape. When summer comes and people begin losing the layers of clothing, more attention is drawn to how we look. Young girls are learning this and basing their entire self worth on their bodies and beauty."
Here's how the test worked:
After chatting for several minutes, the playmate asked each girl how she feels about the way she looks. Thirty-one percent indicated they almost always worry about being fat, while another 18 percent said they sometimes worry about it....Half of the girls watched parts of animated children's movies such as Cinderella that featured young, beautiful characters and appearance-focused comments, such as Gaston telling Belle in Beauty and the Beast that she is "the most beautiful girl in town, and that makes her the best." The second group watched parts of animated children's movies such as Dora the Explorer and Clifford the Big Red Dog that do not contain any appearance-related messages....In a room that featured a dress-up rack of costumes, a vanity, dinosaurs and more, children then spent about the same amount of time on appearance-related play activities, such as brushing their hair at the vanity, regardless of which set of movies they watched.
The good (sort of) news? The kids weren't more affected by a film featuring a svelte princess, like the Princess and the Frog, than by anything else. So limiting princesses and Barbies alone isn't going to do the trick; indeed, they seemed to feel equally bad regardless of what they watched. And one can't help but wonder if conversations like those the children engaged in for this study weren't one more confirmation that this stuff is Important.
I'm glad, though, that this study got the princesses off the hook a little: it's always seemed to me too easy to blame Snow White when the pretty princesses are a constant that pre-dated the dramatic upswing in young kids' eating disorders. Do such films promote a conventional standard of beauty and equate it with virtue? Sure. But it's this in combination with Bratz, Pussycat Dolls, Obese and Pregnant and Man Versus Food that conspires to create a world of what the Atlantic aptly termed "moral panic." Ironically, if the problem with fairy tales is that beauty was "good," we need to realize that obesity has become even more resoundingly "bad," nowadays, and if kids pick up on one, they'll pick up on the other.