The Frontal Cortex

It’s easy to forget just how nasty kids can be. They might look cute, but they are such assholes. They prey on differences and disabilities, using taunts to generate solidarity. Middle school really is a terrible time. But I was pretty surprised to learn that American kids have a strong bias against overweight kids, and that this bias doesn’t seem particularly sensitive to the obesity epidemic. You’d think that having more overweight kids in the classroom would somehow lessen the stigma of being overweight, but it doesn’t:

A 1961 study, replicated 42 years later, asked 10- and 11-year-olds to look at six pictures of other youngsters and rank the order in which they would like to be friends with them. The pictures depicted a child in a wheelchair, one on crutches, another with an amputated hand, a fourth with a facial disfigurement. A fifth photo showed an average-weight child with no disabilities and a sixth showed an overweight youngster.

In both the 1961 study and the 2003 follow-up, the heavy child was resoundingly sixth in order of preference, and spurning of the overweight child was more extreme in the more recent study. Overweight children are regarded with disdain, branded as lazy, ugly, stupid, and sloppy — with the bias that they should be able to do something about the extra weight.

All this taunting has real psychological effects.


  1. #1 hibob
    July 11, 2007

    link to the study:
    Getting Worse: The Stigmatization of Obese Children
    Janet D. Latner* and Albert J. Stunkard

    and the guts of the results:

    “The difference between the ranking of the healthy child and obese child is also shown by the proportion of subjects who ranked each drawing in each of the six ranking positions. Thus, Table 2 shows that 74.9% of participants ranked the healthy child first or second. At the other extreme, 70.1% ranked the obese child last or second to last.”

    “Gender differences emerged for four of the rankings. Girls ranked both the facially disfigured and the obese child significantly lower than did the boys [H(1) = 26.71, p < 0.001; H(1) = 5.23, p < 0.02, respectively]. The boys ranked both the child with no left hand and the child in a wheelchair significantly lower than did the girls [H(1) = 14.29, p < 0.001; H(1) = 11.22, p < 0.01]. Differences between the current and 1961 studies also emerged for three of the middle-rank positions. The facially disfigured child was currently ranked more highly than in 1961 [H(1) = 199.36, p < 0.001]. By contrast, the children with crutches [H(1) = 223.46, p < 0.001] and the wheelchair [H(1) = 63.75, p < 0.001] were ranked lower than in 1961."

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    July 11, 2007

    It’s easy to forget just how nasty kids can be. They might look cute, but they are such assholes.

    Well stated. Ir’s rare to see such a fundamental truth about reality stated in such a concise and clear fashion….

    Reading the Harry Potter books, it always seems that the nastiness of the kids against each other is exaggerated. Unfortunately, often it is not.

    I fear I remember making fun of the fat girl in class back during 6th grade. I was an asshole along with the rest.

    At least I’m fat now.


  3. #3 Drat
    July 11, 2007

    Fifty years ago, an elementary school of might have a few fat kids in the entire school, on the order of 1% of the total. Today, it seems at least 10% of the kids are fat.

  4. #4 cephyn
    July 11, 2007

    Is the “Free $40 Dunkin Donuts Card” ad at the bottom of the article really appropriate?

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