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Children Think Being Obese Is Worse Than Using A Wheelchair, Finds Study

May 18, 2013

Readers, this is what most disabled people, and parents of disabled children, would call a ‘weekend fun’ story. I found it a bit late, but I think this is one of those times when old news is gold news.

I realise that the results of this study will not be seen as a pleasant thing by children who are overweight, or their parents.

However, as a disabled ‘child,’ now an adult, who went to two mainstream schools with too few children who ever wanted to be her friend, I see one part of the findings as a very positive piece of progress for young disabled children.

So, what’s the study?

Well, investigators from the University of Leeds carried out experiments on 100 primary school children aged four to seven. Led by  Professor Andrew Hill, the research investigated young children’s ratings of, and choices between, story characters drawn as overweight, normal weight, or disabled.

The results suggest that young children reject story characters who are overweight- but not those who are disabled. Based on my personal experiences, that’s one study result I didn’t think I’d ever see coming out of  mainstream primary schools.

The children were read a storybook which covered the same plot- a child and what happened when their cat got stuck in a tree. The books only differed in the way the main character was drawn.

The children said that the character called ‘fat Alfie’ was more likely to be naughty, and less likely to win a race, do good school work, be happy with the way he looks, or be invited to parties, than his friend Thomas, another character who was normal weight in all three versions of the story. Most importantly, few children said they would choose ‘fat Alfie’ to be their friend- while most said they would be friends with the slimmer version of the character.

The result that brought a smile to my face was that overall, the children were also more positive about a wheelchair using Alfie. I am sad, but not too surprised, to see that the children thought wheelchair-using Alfie was less likely to do good school work or get invited to parties than slimmer Alfie or Thomas.

Such changes in attitudes don’t take place overnight, however. Disabled people and their parents can take some comfort from the fact that wheelchair using Alfie was not marked down by the children to the same extent as fat Alfie. And importantly, the children were more likely to choose wheelchair-using Alfie as a potential friend than fat Alfie- but sadly for real disabled children, they also preferred Thomas as a friend to either wheelchair using or fat Alfie.

A female version of the story produced similar results. Fat Alfina was rejected as a potential friend by most of the children, in favour of her slimmer friend Holly. Importantly, children’s own gender did not affect their choices.

Professor Andrew Hill said “This research confirms young children’s awareness of the huge societal interest in body size.  It shows that by school entry age UK children have taken on board the negativity associated with fatness and report it’s penalties in terms of appearance, school activities, and socially.”

He went on to say “This negativity was shared by another visibly different characterization, a child in a wheelchair, but to a far smaller extent.  Children rejected the fat character regardless of whether the character was male or female.

Young children have negative perceptions of overweight that are not common to other visibly different conditions, and most apparent as social rejection. These responses are early indications of the views accepted as typical of older children and which may underpin weight-related victimisation of peers.”

My personal opinion is that, in an ideal world, adults should encourage children to be friends with other children of all shapes, sizes and physical abilities. All differences should be learnt about from an early age and celebrated in classrooms- and households- everywhere.

I hope that parents and teachers will be made aware of the results of this study, and that they will use them to encourage the children in their lives to develop positive attitudes about all differences, and to be friends with everyone in their classroom.

fat alfie






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