Children associate thinness with happiness as early as five years of age, according to findings from a study published in the journal BMC Pediatrics. The researchers found that young children perceived slimmer figures as both more attractive and happier than obese figures.
Throughout socialization, young children begin to internalize beauty standards that dictate which types of bodies are attractive. Cultural norms modeled by parents and peers help shape these ideals, and studies suggest that children as young as preschool age show a preference for slim or average-sized bodies and a disinclination toward obese bodies. These preferences may have significant repercussions. For example, body stigmatization could impact children’s choice of playmates in school and relationships in later life.
With their study, researchers Małgorzata Lipowska and her team wanted to delve deeper into children’s perceptions of beauty ideals, wondering whether children associate body size with happiness. To explore this, the researchers first recruited a sample of 680 five-year-old children from Polish preschools.
The preschoolers were shown a chart with three drawings of male silhouettes and three drawings of female silhouettes. The silhouettes were either slim, normal weight, or overweight, and the children were asked to choose which of the silhouettes best fit certain descriptions. Specifically, they selected which man/woman is most pretty/handsome, is the smartest, is the happiest, is the nicest, earns the most money, and works in the coolest place. These questions served to assess how the children associated body size with social success/happiness. A figure drawing earned a point each time it was selected, with the final score representing how happy the children perceived that figure to be.
The results revealed that the slim and normal-weight silhouettes (whether male or female) were equally likely to be chosen as most attractive by both boys and girls. The overweight silhouettes, on the other hand, were the least likely to be chosen as the most attractive.
Additionally, the children seemed to associate the more attractive figures with greater happiness. When comparing the overall happiness scores for each body type, the researchers found that the overweight silhouettes garnered the lowest scores from both boys and girls. In other words, the preschoolers chose the thin and normal-weight body types as the most attractive and also the happiest.
Interestingly, there were some gender differences for specific descriptions. When asked to choose which silhouette was the happiest, the girls judged the slim and normal-weight female silhouettes as equally happy, while the boys chose the slim female silhouettes as the happiest. This may indicate that the young girls had healthier standards concerning women’s weight. The girls also felt that the normal-weight male figure earned the most money, and they were more likely to make this choice than the boys were. Finally, girls were more likely than boys to think the overweight man was the nicest, while boys were more likely than girls to think the thin man was the nicest.
When it came to judging which figure was the smartest, the children did not seem to associate looks with smartness, especially for female silhouettes. “There were no significant differences between assessments of seeing different female body types as wise,” Lipowska and her colleagues explain. “Seeing a woman as pretty was in no way associated with perceiving her as a ‘wise’ person . . . It can thus be concluded that the ‘if she’s pretty, then she’s less smart’ stereotype is already present in children at the age of five years.”
The study authors say their results add to existing evidence that young children demonstrate a preference for thin and normal-weight bodies compared to overweight bodies. These beauty standards are largely created by the media, where thinness is idolized in women and muscularity is idolized in men. Children appear to internalize these standards and grow to associate ideal body types with greater happiness.
The researchers note that the children in the study were all the same age (five years old), and the results may not generalize to preschool children of different ages.
The study, “Does obesity rule out happiness? Preschool children’s perceptions of beauty‑related happiness”, was authored by Małgorzata Lipowska, Mariusz Lipowski, Natasza Kosakowska‑Berezecka, Dorota Dykalska, Ariadna Łada‑Maśko, and Bernadetta Izydorczyk.