In 1998, researchers suggested that “weight-based bias,” which could lead to actual behavior like discrimination, could be found in children as young as 3 years old. That means that feelings of prejudice based on someone’s weight could be a part of anyone’s childhood. Often, people (adults and children alike) do not realize they hold these feelings. However, this implicit bias definitely impacts everyday behavior.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the New York Times reports that researchers at Duke University have found more evidence to suggest that “implicit weight bias” in children could be as strong as “implicit racial bias” in adults. This is startling news, since we know just how consequential any sort of racial bias continues to be. Also, the distinction of implicit weight bias being this powerful was an important point the researchers made. Dr. Asheley Skinner, lead author of the Duke University study, said that implicit weight prejudices can predict behavior more accurately than explicit ones.
Our prejudices and biases are shaped by a culture that promotes “ultra-slimness” and blames people for being fat. The NYTimes article suggests that parents might play a big role in shaping these implicit biases in their children, even if they certainly do not intend to. For example, parents might “comment on their own weight issues and tell their children they shouldn’t be eating certain foods or remark about how much weight they’re gaining,” according to Dr. Skinner.
Children who grow up hearing comments about their weight gain or weight stigma might become more self-conscious in eating, and in extreme cases, develop issues having to do with body image or eating disorders. We think of the teen years as an especially susceptible time for these developments, but bullying because of a child’s weight remains an issue that even elementary school faculty and parents should always remain vigilant of.
Remarks made and habits developed in childhood have a lasting effect on children’s health. However, they also impact how children internalize messages concerning weight from their peers and from the media. With this perspective, it is important to think carefully about how we talk about healthy habits and body positivity with young children and students.