Children are often thought of as “clean slates” when it comes to interpersonal relationships. However, researchers from Ryerson University in Toronto have found that children as young as 21/2 years old seem to have developed a bias against overweight children.

The researchers told stories to 42 boys and girls aged 21/2–5 years. Two were about boys; two featured girls. In each story, one of the characters does something nice, while the other does something mean. At the end of each story, the study subjects were shown illustrations of two children without facial features—one overweight, the other normal weight. The 42 children were then asked which of the illustrated characters they thought performed the nice act and which performed the mean act. Almost 44% of the children indicated that the overweight character had performed the mean act in all four stories.

They described the overweight character as looking meaner or madder than the normal-weight figure. Only 2% of the children identified the overweight figure as being nice in all four stories. “The findings can inform the development of programs to prevent or decrease body stigmatization in order to create inclusive learning and social environments where all children are accepted, included, and gain a sense of belonging regardless of their body shape or size,” stated the authors. The study was published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research (2012; [10], 19–31).