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Negative Self-Image Starts Early

Psychology: Even as young as 5, overweight girls feel bad about their bodies and abilities, a study finds.

March 05, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Girls as young as age 5 form negative self-images based on their weight, a new study has shown.

Those girls whose weight was above average said they felt worse about their bodies--as well as their cognitive abilities--than did girls with lower body weight.

In addition, the study revealed that all of the girls whose parents worried about their child's weight tended to view themselves as being inferior. The more a mother fretted about her 5-year-old being overweight, the less the girl thought of her own physical and cognitive abilities.

"It was startling," said Kristen Krahnst-ver Davison, a specialist in human development and family studies who helped conduct the study. "If girls are showing these issues at age 5, it doesn't look hopeful for what is going to happen to them as teenagers or as young women."

The survey of 5-year-olds' attitudes was part of an ongoing, 10-year-long assessment of 197 girls in a Northeast community. To protect the identities of the children, Davison and her colleague, Leann Lipps Birch, declined to say specifically where the research is occurring. The results of the study of 5-year-olds were released in the January issue of Pediatrics (http://www.pediatrics.org).

Davison, of Pennsylvania State University, said that she and fellow researchers expected their kindergarten-age subjects to be free of concerns about weight or body image. Their assumption was that 5-year-olds lacked the intellectual development or sophistication to judge themselves on the basis of weight.

At this young age, Davison said, girls often express strong positive opinions about themselves. But as the girls' weights increased, "we saw lower levels of self-concept," Davison said. "The relationship is subtle, but the fact that it's even there is quite alarming." The negative feedback from girls in the above-average weight percentiles surprised the researchers. "We were shocked," Davison said. "We thought at 5, we would get some baseline before things got . . . interesting."

But Dr. Katharine Phillips, a specialist in body image disorders at Brown University in Rhode Island, said the findings were not entirely unexpected. In children as young as 5, Phillips said, she has diagnosed body dysmorphic disorder--a pathological concern with appearance.

The association between body weight and self-esteem (and perceived body image and self-esteem) is well established in medical and sociological research, Phillips said--although not necessarily in very young children.

The study results come at a time when weight levels among U.S. children in general are on the rise. In the last two decades, the number of children whose weight is above average has doubled. According to statistics used by Davison's group, 14% of children ages 6 to 17 are overweight, and an additional 11% are at risk of being overweight. The study used a conservative definition of "overweight": children in the 95th weight-to-height percentile or above.

The study's authors said that excess weight is regarded as the most prevalent nutritional disease among U.S. children and adolescents. The condition has been associated with various forms of diabetes--as well as sleep apnea, hypertension and depression.

Each participant in the survey of 5-year-olds' attitudes toward weight was interviewed twice. The girls were asked to react to a series of pictures designed to assess self-image. Parents also completed a questionnaire.

Author Carol Weston of New York, an authority on preteen girls, said the connection between mothers and daughters in this study was especially troubling.

"Mothers who worry about their weight tend to have daughters who worry about their weight, and that's not good," Weston said. "Five-year-old girls should not be worrying about their weight at all."

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