New research presented as the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Liverpool, UK, shows that very young children appear to reject story book characters who are overweight, but not those who are disabled. The research is by Professor Andrew Hill, Dr Sarah Harrison, and Dr Maddie Rowlinson, University of Leeds, UK.

Previous research has suggested that, far from improving over time, the attitudes and perceptions of children to obesity may have deteriorated since the 1960s. A study in 2003 by Latner & Stunkard, 2003, repeated a study from the 1960s and showed that 10-12 year old children in the USA had worse attitudes to obesity than in the 1960s. However, studies in very young children are lacking, thus this new research investigated young children's ratings of, and choices between, story characters drawn as overweight, normal weight, or disabled.

In study 1, 126 Reception and Year 1 English Primary School children (63 girls, mean age=5.3 years, range 4.4-6.3) were read a story book commissioned for this research. The story described 3 children and what happened when their cat got stuck in a tree. Each page had a colour illustration and a simple text narrative. There were 3 versions of the story book that differed only in the way that Alfie, a main character, was drawn - as normal weight, in a wheelchair, or fat. After the story children rated Alfie and Thomas (one of the other children in the book, always normal weight) on several attributes and behaviours and were asked to choose between Alfie and Thomas as who best represented each attribute/behaviour.

In study 2, 150 children (53% girls, mean age 5.7 years) repeated the procedure with female characters, Alfina and Holly, in the same story. Both study 1 and study 2 involved 4 schools each from West Yorkshire, UK (though different schools for each study).

There was an overall difference in ratings of Alfie and Thomas on the 9 attributes/behaviours assessed. This was most apparent in children seeing both fat Alfie and wheelchair Alfie as less likely to win in a race (compared with Thomas). In addition, fat Alfie was rated as having fewer friends to play with compared with Thomas. These differences were accounted for by children's age suggesting that older children were more discriminating in their ratings than younger children.

Clear differences were apparent when children chose between Alfie and Thomas. Fat Alfie was less likely to win a race, do good school work, be happy with the way he looks, get invited to parties, and more likely to be naughty at school. In contrast, wheelchair Alfie was less likely to do good school work or get invited to parties.

Both fat Alfie and wheelchair Alfie were rejected in favour of Thomas as a personal friend. In particular, only one of 43 children chose fat Alfie over Thomas (normal weight Alfie was as equally likely to be chosen as Thomas). In the female version of the story Fat Alfina (but not wheelchair Alfina) was rejected in favour of Holly as a personal friend. Only two of 30 children chose fat Alfina over Holly.

"This research confirms young children's awareness of the huge societal interest in body size. It shows that by school entry age UK children have taken on board the negativity associated with fatness and report it's penalties in terms of appearance, school activities, and socially," says Professor Hill. "This negativity was shared by another visibly different characterization, a child in a wheelchair, but to a far smaller extent. Children rejected the fat character regardless of whether the character was male or female. Children's own gender made no difference to their choices. But there was some evidence that older children expressed more negative views."

Professor Hill concludes: "Young children have negative perceptions of overweight that are not common to other visibly different conditions, and most apparent as social rejection. These responses are early indications of the views accepted as typical of older children and which may underpin weight-related victimisation of peers."