And today in Things That Made Me Die A Little More Inside, we have this: a recent study out of the Netherlands found that fat kids are excluded from friendships at an early age. It’s no secret that our culture is full of rampant fat-shaming; our society frequently demonizes fat people, considering fatness to be not just “unattractive,” but also a moral failing. That’s awful enough as it is — here's your reminder that all bodies are good bodies, and that fatness and morality have no connection (among many other things people falsely associate with it) — but the results of this study just make it all even worse. They show that our culture’s fat-shaming habits have gotten so bad that kids are both picking up on them and acting on them.
For the study, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers examined questionnaires answered by 504 preteens when they were between the ages of 10 and 12. The questionnaire was simple: It asked the children to list their best friends and their enemies. The researchers controlled for gender, as well as removed kids from the data set who had either skipped or been held back a grade. They then assigned the kids weight categories according to their Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures body fat based on height and weight; when the children were divided up into these categories, about 16 percent of them were classified as “overweight.”
Each kid was, on average, named a friend by five classmates, while they were considered enemies by two. But this wasn’t the case for the 16 percent of kids classified as “overweight” according to the BMI-based categories the researchers used: Those children were named a friend by four classmates and considered an enemy by three.
That fat people are routinely discriminated against has been well documented. A 2015 study out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, for example, found that fat people in the workplace are often viewed as less competent than straight size people; similarly, a study conducted by Glamour in 2012 found that fat women are more likely to be labeled “sloppy,” “undisciplined,”and “lazy” than straight size women are. Fat people also often deal with unconscious biases from health care providers, as a study of medical students at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. published in 2013 found — biases which can lead to receiving a lower quality of care. A 2013 study out of Yale University even found that male jurors are more likely to find fat women guilty than they are to find the same of straight size people or fat men.
What makes this current study extra awful, though, is the fact that it’s about kids. The results suggest that children as young as 10 have absorbed enough of our fat-shaming culture to begin ostracizing other children based on their appearance — that is, they’ve already learned that in our society, “fat” is considered “bad,” despite the fact that in fatness and badness have absolutely nothing to do with each other. What’s more, they’re basing their social interactions on this false equivalency. And that is horrifying.
And the effects of this kind of social behavior are long-term, as well. “Our finding is alarming because if we continue to have social environments where fat shaming is the norm, these kids will continue to be ostracized,” said lead author Kayla de la Haye, who is an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, according to Science Daily. “Those adverse interactions increase the risk of loneliness, depression, poor eating habits, and illness.” Indeed, there’s a wide body of research showing the negative effects of loneliness, from an increased risk of heart disease to a loss of sleep (which has a whole host of negative side effects, as well).
The study isn’t perfect by any means; for one thing, BMI isn’t necessarily an accurate measure of whether someone is healthy. Issues scientists have taken with the measure include the fact that it can’t distinguish fat and muscle, nor does it take into consideration the fact that different types of fat can have different effects on your health. Plus, fitness and fatness aren't mutually exclusive — you can, in fact, be both healthy and fat.
But what is clear is this: We need to do better. Fat is not inherently “bad.” Being fat is not a moral failing. Treating fat people with less respect is not OK. Using fat-shaming language is not OK, even if it’s unintentional. Yes, when something has been as deeply ingrained in us as fat-shaming is, it’s not easy to change — but the fact that it’s hard doesn’t excuse us from needing to make that change.
De la Haye is hopeful that this study, as depressing as it is, can also be part of the solution. "We want to reduce the stigma" of being fat, she said according to Science Daily. "We have anti-bullying campaigns based on sexual identity, race and ethnicity. We should do more to integrate obesity in our anti-bullying repertoire."
And she's right. If it seems intimidating, start small: Pay attention to how you talk about yourself and about others. Be mindful of whether you use that language around kids, and try to make an effort to stop if you do. Teach kids the lessons that matter: That kindness costs you nothing to give, that all bodies are amazing things, that all people deserve respect. And try to internalize those lessons yourself. Adults need reminding sometimes, too — and kids can be some of the best teachers there are.