Young children see obesity as if it were a kind of contagious illness. That's according to Paul Klaczynski who says his research helps explain why the stigmatisation of fat people is so prevalent, and why obesity prejudice is committed by children as young as three.
Dozens of seven-year-old and ten-year-old children, some White American, some Chinese, were asked to sample drinks from an imaginary company that they were told had recruited other children to help with the development of new products. Each drink came in a bottle with a label showing a photo of the obese or average-weight child who had helped develop it, together with made-up nutritional information.
All the bottles contained the same fruit juice mix, but the children, old and young, White and Chinese, rated the drinks developed by obese children as having a less pleasant taste and as more likely to cause sickness. Crucially, this pattern of ratings was more pronounced if, before tasting the drinks, the children had been told an unrelated story about a child contracting a contagious illness.
Also, later on, when the children were tricked into thinking that they had previously been told that the ill child in the story was one of the drinks creators, they were more likely to falsely recall that it was one of the obese children, as opposed to one of the average-weight children.
"Children, likely at an implicit level, recognise the similarities between the symptoms of obesity and those of known contagious illnesses and, at a more explicit level, perceive 'something wrong' with the obese," Klaczynski concluded.
Klaczynski, P. (2008). There's something about obesity: Culture, contagion, rationality, and children's responses to drinks "created" by obese children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 99, 58-74.