Fear of Fat: Preschool Girls and the Thin Ideal

*Cross posted with permission from Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D.*

The old and new Strawberry Shortcake, one of many old school children's characters getting sexier, thinner makeovers.

In a study published in 2010, Dr. Jennifer Harriger, a colleague at Pepperdine University, looked at how much girls aged 3-5 had internalized the thin ideal (the idea that beauty in females = thinness) and how they attributed stereotypes to others because of their weight (fat=lazy, stupid, has no friends while thin=nice, sweet, has friends).

Yes, you read that right, 3-5 year olds! You may be thinking, “Oh come on, kids that young don’t think about things like that.” But, according to Dr. Harriger’s research, there is a very strong research base out there that tells us that children as young as 3 years of age are already beginning to buy into the idea that for females, thinness is equal to goodness.

So what did she find? The little girls that were studied showed evidence of having already begun to internalize the thin ideal and to stereotype others based solely on their weight. What was interesting about this study is that they had girls choose from several different game pieces (like those in Candy Land) which were identical except for their weight. The kids chose pieces that represented themselves and a best friend. Up until now, research studies have shown that kids don’t tend to distinguish that much between thin and average weights. However, in this study, the girls more often chose thin game pieces over the average sized ones. Dr. Harriger thinks this may be due to the fact that in recent years, the thin ideal has been presented to very young children more strongly through products and entertainment.

For example, consider this photo below, which was commented upon on Feminist Fatale.com, comparing a Barbie doll from the 1990s to one manufactured today. As you can see, the proportions of the doll, while always ridiculous, have changed even more to emphasize the thin mid-section and curvaceous breast and behind.  There have been many recent make-overs of several well-loved children’s characters, such as that of Strawberry Shortcake, to give them shapes and appearances more in line with the thin ideal. This change in the characterization of positive characters is likely connected to the change in young children’s opinion of thin-vs-average weight.

Barbie may have changed over the years, but her body now looks like a Victoria Secrets model.

One of the saddest and most startling findings in this study had to do with the things that the little girls said about the different game pieces. For example, they said about the fatter piece “I hate her because she has a fat stomach” or “I don’t want to be her, she’s fat and ugly.” What’s worrying is that we also see girls as young as ages 5 and 6 talking about dieting and wanting to be thinner. It’s time to stop and think about the messages our young children are getting about body shape and value. It’s time for all of us to stand together and show our children that being healthy and good isn’t about being “thin,” but about so much more than that. Instead of focusing on thinness, let’s focus on strength, both of body and character.

Harriger, J.A., Calogero, R.M., Witherington, D.C., & Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin-ideal in preschool-age girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9868-1


Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D., is Director of the School Psychology Training and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. She often writes on the media, sexualization, and parenting issues.


  1. this makes me so very angry and frustrated. aaaahhhhhhh!
    trying so hard to shield our four-year-old daughter (and her big brother, for that matter) from this toxic badness, help her to love herself, and not allow the fat-hate and self-hate to creep in. thank you so much for continuing to sound the alarm.

  2. WOW.

    i… just… UGH!!!!!!!!

  3. On one hand we have media and toys promoting a “thin” ideal, on the other hand we hear constant reports about an obesity epidemic among children….. I think fear of one feeds off fear of the other.

  4. I’m the mother of two boys, but what I read in your blog disturbs me. I remember being a young girl and worrying about my looks, and it didn’t lead to anything good as I got older. What I don’t understand is what to do about all of this, though. Is keeping them away from the television and mainstream toys enough? Do we need to homeschool? And what’s the effect of being different? There are just so many questions going through my head. Thank you for the though-provoking post.

    • One thing I say to parents of boys — this affects you, too. These young girls are the mothers of tomorrow, the women that your sons will some day fall in love with. (I know that assumes a lot, but you know what I mean). The sexualization and body image crisis is a children’s rights issue that impacts us all.

      So what do we do? Well, there is no way we can shelter our kids. Homeschooling is fine if that is what a family chooses, but it isn’t the answer to this. Absolutely be media literate — do you have catalogs or magazines laying around that offer your sons very narrow definitions of what women should look like? Does their father use respectful language towards women, and refrain from commenting on their looks? Are they watching age appropriate tv and movies? I would say keep the crappy toys out of the house, mostly because they really don’t even invoke that much creative play.

      I know this sounds like a broad answer, but the single best thing we can do is TALK TALK TALK to our kids. Kids are smart, and I certainly can remember as a kid appreciating when grown ups talked to me and treated me with the respect my intellect deserved. How/what we say will depend on our kids ages, and the dialogue will change as they get older. And absolutely NO FAT TALK in your home, or in front of your children.

      We can’t shelter them, as much as our parental instintcs might to us to. But we can teach them to question and think critically about what they are exposed to, and build them up to a place that when they see garbage, they know it stinks.

  5. What a depressing read – I say this as the mother of a 4 yr old girl.

  6. Okay, I get it. And it scares the crap out of me (especially b/c my 3 yr old daughter has recently taken to LOVING both the *new* Strawberry Shortcake and the Disney princessmonsters. But WHAT the heck can we do about it besides put our girls in a bubble? I’m afraid that, by taking away all of her current favorite things, I’ll make her want them even more or cause her to fixate on them even more. (i.e. “You always want what you can’t have.”)

    • Well, we can’t put our kids in a bubble, nor should we. And we can’t parent from a place of fear. What we can do, all of us, is to continue to educate ourselves and to keep an open dialogue with our kids. At 3yo your daughter is old enough to have some critical thinking questions posed to her, and for you to start modeling what positive body image sounds and looks like.

      My daughter just turned 5yo and she has no interest in Princessmosters (love that term!) or anything really girly, for that matter. Mostly because I kept Princess/Tinkerbell/Barbie at bay while she was young. I filled our home with open-ended, age appropriate playthings.
      This post might help answer some questions, and give you some ideas on things to try: http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2011/02/media-literacy-for-itty-bitties-with-lyn-mikel-brown/

      I wouldn’t suggest taking her toys away, but work in healthier options, and make sure your family knows how you define healthy and age appropriate toys when they give gifts. Libraries, children’s museums, parks, music/dance/art classes, and playgroups are all good ways to expose your daughter to a whole world of opportunities, and not limit her to hypergirly, sexualized images of femininity.

      And, you could do all of that and she could still be obsessed with all things sparkly and princess. Some kids are just like that. Just keep exposing her to options, options, options.

  7. Melissa, excellent blog! Love it!

    I think this whole conversation has to go beyond our blogs and our personal parenting. It has to become a nationwide concern, and it isn’t. I wonder why? We have to hit the media and we have to hit it hard. We need to create a revolution, petitions, boycotting of advertising, barbies, clothing, strawberry dolls being sexualized, and I also just recently wrote about Dora and how they have made her into a girly – princess. If we can get rid of all these public venues that inundate our children with such false and sexualized images of what it means to be a girl,then we have a chance.

    I love what you’re doing here — as another mother fighting for her daughter to be given the space to grow normally — without these preconceived and commercialized images tossed into her awareness of being a girl

    • Hi Marina –
      Thanks for your message. I’ve been trying to get this into the media, trust me. The media talks about teen/tweens all the time, but we’re not talking about early intervention and little girls.

      I’m all for launching a mini-suffragette movement — our daughters, under the guidance of their parents, saying “We want our girlhood back.” Our daugthers have the natural born right to a childhood free of sexualization and crushing body image thoughts.

  8. Wow, my worlds just imploded (in a good way). ACU’s my alma mater. 🙂

    Just this morning, oddly enough, my 4YO daughter told me that “girls are always fatter than boys” and then “I’m the fattest of all!” but it seemed like, from the way she said it, that this was a good and enviable thing! Still trying to figure out what’s behind that one. But, I was so pleased to hear her say something so completely contrary to the thin=beautiful=valued message…especially since she has *literally* been off the charts for height/weight her entire life.

  9. For those of you asking, “What can we do to fight this,” Melissa is right on the money when she says TALK to your kids. Here are the things that I’m doing, both as the mother of three girls and a psychology professor studying this issue.

    1. Talk to your kids about the things that they’re seeing. My daughters and I have discussed the fact that Barbie doesn’t look like real people and that she couldn’t walk in real life. Don’t be afraid to bring it up and say, “Isn’t that weird? Real people don’t look like that.” And, of course, try to avoid those images that you think may be promoting the thin ideal. My oldest is 11 now, and a wonderful media critic. She points things out to me now, and shares my interests in seeking fair and realist representations of females.

    2. Point out lots of different healthy shapes and sizes. We know short, tall, curvy, and thin people who are all strong and healthy. I point out to my girls things like if a friend is running a half marathon or has taken up biking. I want them to see that health and strength are the most important thing, not thinness.

    3. And, of course, cut out the fat talk. Melissa has said that a lot, and it’s really true that when our girls hear us berating our own bodies, they will start to do the same. Use your own words to talk about your and their bodies being strong, healthy, etc.

    4. Lastly, know that as a parent you are POWERFUL!!!! The research tells us that parents can make a huge difference in the way that their children interpret and respond to media. YOU are the most powerful voice in your child’s world, especially when they’re very young.

    We’re all in this together, and we’re making a difference!

  10. I have been trying to understand for several years just why the female characters in children’s animation now nearly always exhibit legs 150 times the length of their torsos, and huge breasts barely covered by skimpily drawn on clothing. A female action hero? Fantastic!- if only she were not always portrayed as the sex object of men’s fantasies! It is sick.

  11. WOW! 3-5years old? very very young to think such things about dieting, my gosh i can’t believe that myself. i wasn’t even aware about figures or body shapes not until i get to high school.

  12. My daughter just started 6th grade and it’s horrible the things she tells me about others at school, but it started younger than that, I talk to her alot and ask alot of questions, I can’t believe these kids are already obsessed with hair, clothes, etc I teach her not to be mean to someone or join the wagon teasing other kids, whether it’s weight, glasses, freckles, thin, tall short, we are all unique and how does it make her feel if someone makes fun of her. And yes she tells me about the real obnoxious ones, and I tell her apparently there parents don’t love them enough to teach them how to act, and/or there parents apparently were raised the same and have pity for them not to be mean or make fun of them. I hear guys young and old always making fun of overweight woman, I busted my husband and gave him hell, I swear to him his next life He’ll be way overweight teased and taunted to hell see how he likes it, I don’t get it with him All the women in his family are overweight and he loves them alot. Advertisers, marketing, who are these people!!!!!Back in the 40’s 50’s they preached perfect size 10 Now it’s perfect size 0 My daughter in law’s 5 yr old at the time was at my home Repeated my mom says beauty hurts, and she needed to lose some weight 5 the 5 yr old. I was outraged

  13. Recently, a person I know, was concerned about her 5 year old daughters weight. She was brought in to a nutritionalist and is constantly being reminded of her food intake. Candy treats are reserved for Fridays. HOWEVER!!!!! This parent continues to use the DRIVE-THRU nearly everyday for lunch. Stopping at the local coffee shop for a snack which always includes a donut or cookie. So I ask you, who needs the Nutritionalist, the daughter or the mother!! Obesity is not the fault of the child. DRIVES ME CRAZY!!!!

  14. “‘We’re the beautiful half of the species. For God’s sake, our male counterparts are bald or balding, grow hair in their ears, out their noses, on their shoulders, asses, bellies and backs, they’re smelly, beer bellied and have sweaty, stinky balls hanging off their ape-like bodies. And they feel F*$%@^& GREAT about themselves. That just doesn’t add up.’ -Tracee Sioux”

    Ummm… okay, so back up a sec. When did we establish that bald/etc wasn’t beautiful? I just feel like there’s an inconsistency here… if only I weren’t so lazy maybe I’d find it…


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