Study: Diet Culture is Screwing Up Five Year Old Girls

grade on curveIf you were looking for proof that our culture is unbelievably messed up around dieting, health, and weight, you need look no further than the fact that a study has come out called “Dietary restraint of 5-year-old girls: Associations with internalization of the thin ideal and maternal, media, and peer influences.”

Yes, we have reached a point where we are studying dieting behaviors and thin obsession in kindergarten girls.  So what did the study find?


Thirty-four percent of girls reported at least a moderate level of dietary restraint. While most girls were satisfied with their body size, half showed some internalization of the thin ideal. Girls’ dietary restraint was correlated with weight bias favoring thinner bodies, and greater internalization of the thin ideal, media exposure, and appearance conversations with peers. Media exposure and appearance conversations were the strongest predictors of dietary restraint.

That is straight up horrifying, but sadly not even a little bit surprising. We put fetuses on restriction diets, and then give babies low calorie formula, schools grade kids on their weight, people who claim to be experts on kids’ health don’t feel the need to have any evidence before implementing interventions on fat kids, the First Lady fat shames her own daughters on National television and then holds up those who emotionally and physically abuse fat people as role models, we perform medical experiments on fat kids without informed consent or permission. So it’s not exactly shocking that by the time they are five girls understand and internalize the idea that a thin body is a good body, that food restriction is a good idea, and that all of this is a dandy topic of conversation among their peers.

We can make this stop. I think the solution is to talk about the health of all children, instead of the size of some children.  I think it’s helping kids develop a strong relationship and sense of trust with their bodies, it’s helping them understand their bodies’ needs instead of being terrified of being or becoming “fat.” I think it’s helping them try out lots of types of movement and giving them a chance to find something they enjoy instead of insisting that if they don’t like getting dodge balls hurled at them, or playing organized sports, or being judged on their ability to do a random group of exercises once a year (for which they get no training the rest of the year) then they deserve to be ridiculed.  There are lots of things that we could do if we really cared about kids’ health, and talking about their weight isn’t even close.

The piece talks about needing further research to determine if this will lead to higher incidences of eating disorders, and that’s important to discuss (in a decade we’ve seen a 119% increase in eating disorder hospitalizations in kids UNDER TWELVE.) But it’s not the only issue.  What happens to gender equality when 5 year old boys are exploring the world, learning body confidence, and talking about their thoughts and dreams and ideas, and 5 year old girls are hating their bodies, dieting, and talking about the thin ideal?

As a society we are fucking up five year old girls, and they deserve better,and there are simple things we can do that will give them better, and we should get on that right fucking now. Thanks to reader Jill for sending me the link to this study!

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24 thoughts on “Study: Diet Culture is Screwing Up Five Year Old Girls

  1. The only way this is going to change is if the medical establishment changes its assertions that body weight (a) is per se harmful if over a certain amount and (b) can be manipulated at will. Until then, anyone who wants to make larger people’s lives miserable can do so with impunity because there is so much official backup for their bigotry. I can’t see that change happening any time soon, given the huge vested interests, both financial and professional, in the status quo. I haven’t seen one person of authority come out against it — though someone please correct me if I’m wrong about that.

    I do think it was interesting that the office of my new GP says this in the info they hand out to new patients:

    “All vital signs will be taken at every visit, other than for a simple blood draw. Vital sign measurements include weight, blood pressure, pulse oximetry, heart rate, temperature, and respirations. We understand that patients often do not want to be weighed. However, we are required as a Patient-Centered Medical Home and NCQA Recognized Practice to obtain all of these vital signs with each visit. Please make us aware if you prefer that we simply record the numbers and not divulge that specific information to you.”

    So they are at least sensitive to this, it seems. FWIW, when they weighed me and I was the exact same weight I’ve been for the last 30+ years, and I said so, the assistant said, “Do you want it to be less?” (my BMI puts me at the upper end of “overweight” — before 1998, of course, it was “normal”). I said, “No, I’m happy with it!” And that was the only thing I heard about weight the entire visit.

    1. “We are required.” What happened to consent, or for that matter courtesy. I also appreciate that they are explaining what is going on, but don’t give up my right to informed consent to any treatment or procedure because the doc signed a contract!

      1. I was told at my last doctor’s visit that they could not bill my insurance company unless I allowed them to take all my vitals, including weight. They told me I would have to pay out of pocket for the visit if I refused.

        1. I’m calling bullshit on this. Of course different insurance companies may have different policies but I always refuse to be weighed when I see my PCP and the insurance company always pays for the vist. Plus, patients DO have the right to refuse any treatment and I don’t see why that wouldn’t apply to being weighed.

    2. That sounds like somebody on staff agrees with the whole idea of this weight-bigotry being ridiculous, but because of government regulations, they HAVE to take those measurements, so there, full stop, pbpbpbbpbpttt! :-p

      Sometimes, such as when figuring a specific dosage, or in the case of certain drugs not working over a certain weight (like certain birth control), it really is vital to know. Also, tracking weight changes can be important, because sudden, unexplained weight changes are often symptoms of an important, even urgent, issue. But that’s not why doctors are being *required* to take those measurements.

      If the upper-ups said that we need to track weight in patients because 1) dosing, and 2) warning signs of important issues, I’d have no problem with it. But they don’t. They say, “We need to track weight because OBESITY EPIDEMIC OMG!!!” And then, they blame any weight gain on Evil Fatties Doing Fat Stuff, and congratulate patients on weight loss, even if that weight loss is a symptom of a terrible disease, and don’t even bother to tell the pharmacist your weight, to get the proper dosage.

      Seems like the staff would really like to avoid triggering their patients, and I’m glad of that. Too bad for those regulations that require this, though.

  2. Although I didn’t start actual dieting and eating disordered behavior until I was in my teens, I can remember looking at my mother’s magazines starting at around five years old and thinking that when I got old enough, I’d buy this diet candy called Aydz so I could be thin and pretty. The stuff had benzocaine in it. When I got older, I actually did try it. Shocker: it didn’t work. I was still hungry and I felt like a failure because I was still hungry. I can recall my mother trying it at some point along the way too.
    I was five in 1970. The thin idea has been fucking up little girls’ self esteem for a long time, but I think it’s only gotten worse.

  3. The first time I remember crying to my parents because I was “chubby”, I was five years old. I wanted to know how to change my body size and I wanted to know why I was chubby when my older sister wasn’t. The year was 1961.

  4. There’s this meme going around right now that if you “catch childhood obesity early,” you can make a fat child grow up thin.

    As a fat woman who started as a fat baby whose parents “caught” her childhood obesity as early as her memory goes, no, that will not get you a thin adult out of a fat child. It will only get you a kid stuck on the diet roller coaster long before they’re tall enough to be riding it. My parents/grandparents are and were absolutely wonderful and the very model of genuinely misguided compassion, but even their rational, by-the-book attemtps to shrink me left me no smaller but feeling dirty, broken, and defective, like I let them down by existing. I saw what thin little girls were being promised on TV and understood that none of those promises applied to me. Weight stigma got into and ruined nearly every aspect of my childhood. I watched my parents measure my food on a scale and then I’d look in the mirror while thinking of thin pop stars and cartoon characters and hate my body for not matching theirs. I’d go to my fat day camp and listen to the teacher talk about sneak eating and choosing candy over vegetables and all the other “fat things” I wasn’t doing and I’d fantasize about dying and waking up in another world where nobody was angry at me for not being a thin little girl. I would listen to my parents and trainers gush at my athletic ability and promise me the pounds *had* to start dropping off soon if I kept up the pace, and then watched as I kept up the pace and the pounds stayed put. I wasn’t even ten years old.

    I’m not a millimeter thinner for any of this.

    And as the posts above will tell you, I’m far from the oldest person here. My Toddler’s Realization of Defective Fatness happened as recently as 1986. There are stories above me from the 70’s and 60’s.

    So, sorry, society, but your latest plot to create a world without fatties is yet again doomed to failure. But by all means, keep cooking the books and telling yourself otherwise. What’s a few thousand traumatized, hospitalized kids next to the warm glow you get inside when you feel like you’re “doing something” about “obesity” and your fatty-free Utopia is juuuuust around the corner? 9_9

  5. “or being judged on their ability to do a random group of exercises once a year (for which they get no training the rest of the year)”
    THIS! Do most elementary-aged kids spend their free time practicing sit-ups and pull-ups? Because I had no clue how to do most of the things on the President’s physical fitness test.

    1. I’ve posted this before:

      In math class, they give you worksheets targeted at the concepts you don’t quite get, and homework.

      In science class, they give you remedial lab time, and homework.

      In handwriting class, they run copies off the practice masters for the letters you have trouble forming, and send you home with some.

      In history class, they mark up your report and send you home to revise it per their explanations of where you goofed.

      In P.E., they tell you to do something, and if you can’t do it, they shame you, blame you, make dire predictions of your future ill-health and early death, accuse you of deliberately slowing everybody down, call you defective and stupid, and then send you home to pray for summer vacation so you’ll get a break before you get the whole damn thing over again next fall.

      1. Yeah! Every single other subject, they’ll actually TEACH you what to do, how to do it, and why you do it that way. In P.E., you’re lucky if they even tell you the rules of a sport, before they start grading you on your performance. And if you injure yourself in P.E. class, don’t come crying to the P.E. teacher. He won’t look at your two twisted ankles, or even direct you to the nurse. He’ll just mark you down as a failure, because you couldn’t limp fast enough. ON THE VERY FIRST DAY.

        Yeah, that happened my first day of high school P.E. Golly, I hated it. Ironically, this was the same guy who taught first aid, and how to wrap up a sprained ankle. The only time he ever touched my ankle was when he was using me as a prop, to show how it was done, but when my poor ankles were hurting, from falling down on the run? Nope. Didn’t touch them. Didn’t look at them. Just marked a fail for the day.

        Every other subject was so much better. At least I didn’t run the risk of injury during calculus.

        1. “What do you mean you can’t do a situp today, the same way you coudn’t yesterday, or last month, or last year? What is the matter with you?–What do you mean you read about crunches and now you want to try doing crunches for a while and see if that makes full situps any easier? Shut up and follow the curriculum.”

          Replace the above with “quadratic equation” and “pre-algebra” for full effect.

          1. “Wands away.” “The Ministry is sure that with enough study, you should be able to pass the practical section of your OWLS.”

            If Dolores Umbridge were a Muggle, she’d probably be a P.E. teacher.

            I’m sure there ARE good P.E. teachers, who actually take the “E” part seriously, and don’t shame anyone for their bodies’ differences from the ideal. However, I never was blessed with one such.

            1. I had one for the first two years of school. Then she left. Stomachache time every day, 180 days per year, after that.

  6. My little girl is not a year and a half, so she a few more golden years left before she gets dunked into the BS waters of body shaming. I will do everything in my power to protect her but I know she will get this message no matter what (mags at the store check out, other parents/friends/older sibling of friends, food packaging, tv when visiting) Not rhetorical: what can I do?

  7. They want to weigh my kid (she’s 6) in gym class. I have rage. I’m sending the following email.

    “My daughter will not be participating in BMI assessment or being weighed in school at any point unless it is medically necessary for emergency treatment of an injury or illness.

    Per Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, “I’d be willing to wager that scale use in children has played a formative role in the development of many mood disturbances and eating disorders over the years. I worry greatly about the impact of weighing children on their self-esteem, body image and relationships with food. A child’s actual weight doesn’t really matter, at least not in any constructive, formative way. Ultimately, a child’s weight is not something that is directly controllable. Weight’s primary levers – eating behaviors and activity levels – have dozens, if not hundreds, of drivers and co-drivers, and many of them won’t in fact be modifiable.”

    The BMI was introduced in the early 19th century by a Belgian named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. He was a mathematician, not a physician. It makes no allowance for the relative proportions of bone, muscle and fat in the body. But bone is denser than muscle and twice as dense as fat, so a person with strong bones, good muscle tone and low fat will have a high BMI. ”

    I wish I’d had this study to send as well. I’ll keep it around in case I need more source material.

    1. In my memory, I was the heaviest kid in my sixth grade class (this might not be accurate). Looking back, I realize I was also one of the tallest—I was nearly my adult height at 12. My GP commented on the size of my bones when I asked about osteoporosis (a side effect of medication I’m on) with, “Look at your wrists. You have BIG bones. I don’t expect you’ll ever have problems with osteoporosis.”

      But I remember everyone looking at me and acting embarrassed when they read my weight off in sixth grade—although it was actually well within normal BMI for my height.

  8. Re putting fetuses on diets: I was horrified to see that right on the plate-that-belongs-to-me government site (not running the risk of even accidentally linking!) there’s a recommendation that people of “normal” weight “should” gain an amount that represents the fetus, placenta, amniotic fluid, additional blood volume and joint cushioning, and fat reserves that the average pregnant person does accumulate–while women who are “too fat” should gain less. Which part of that weight are we supposed to dispense with, exactly?

    1. Just like nutrition only being for thin people, babies, placentas, amniotic fluid, blood, etc., are only for thin people. Everybody knows that fat people should ALWAYS lose weight, even while pregnant, and starvation is an excellent way to do this, no matter what, dontchaknow.

      Besides, everybody knows that fat people make lousy parents, anyway.

      Also, the sun circles around the Earth. It’s so obvious.

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