The psychosocial and cultural atmosphere of childhood obesity

Several years ago, I initiated several studies to investigate the links among age, proximal and distal cultural influences, on children’s reactions to obese children.  At present, data collection has now been completed, or almost completed, for five studies; data collection on two cross-cultural investigations (exploring reactions to obese children in China and the US) and one longitudinal study, should be completed in the spring of 2007. Although this research (data analyzed, partially analyzed, collection underway) can  be classified and cross-classified in numerous ways, I have opted for a relatively simple (albeit rough) categorization because neat and clear distinctions (e.g., between social and cognitive development) are not always made easily and because I think it’s possible to see some of the implications of this research for other areas of social scientific inquiry, policy, and practice without imposing somewhat artificial intra- and inter-disciplinary distinctions. 
Social development, proximal influences.  We have now collected two sets of data on peer and parental correlates of children’s and adolescents’ beliefs about obesity, eating practices, and attractiveness.  Campbell and Klaczynski (2005) collected sociometric data to determine the extent to which early and middle adolescents friends’ shared similar beliefs about eating-disordered related cognitions and behaviors and whether shared beliefs can be predicted by overlap between friends’ and individual participants’ self-esteem, body esteem, and beliefs about the importance of thinness.  Our initial analyses indicate, across BMI levels and after controlling for the participant’s self esteem, body esteem, and attractiveness beliefs, significant variance in potentially maladaptive eating behaviors and cognitions can accounted for by friends’ body esteem and beliefs about the importance of attractiveness.   Consistent with my earlier suggestion that, at least in some domains, conformity among adolescents may increase with age, we have found more overlap in the beliefs of high school friends and other middle school friends. 

In a study of approximately 201 Caucasian- and Hispanic-American mothers and their 10-16 year-old children (Klaczynski & Feinaeur, 2005), participants completed measures of physical activity (and, for parents, beliefs about children’s levels of activity), thin idealization, self esteem, body esteem (parents also competed a measure to indicate their perceptions of their children’s body esteem), personal control beliefs about weight, and beliefs about the causes of obesity.  The goal of this work is to similarities and differences in parent-child beliefs and whether these differ by ethnicity.  Our preliminary analyses show that, even after controlling for child age and across Caucasian- and Hispanic-American dyads, little overlap exists between parents’ and children’s beliefs.  By contrast, children from the two ethnic groups appear to have very similar attractiveness, weight control, and obesity beliefs.  Whereas Caucasian mothers had exaggerated (considerably) and distorted views of their daughters’ beliefs about daughters’ current and ideal figures (i.e., although Caucasian girls evinced greater current-ideal discrepancies than Hispanic girls, the mothers of Caucasian girls believed that these discrepancies were larger than the girls actually believed), Hispanic mothers and daughters evinced more congruence ion their understandings of daughter current and ideal figures).  At the same time, Hispanic mothers desired thinner figures for their daughters than their daughter actually wanted; Caucasian mothers desired heavier figures for the daughters than the body type ideals actually envisioned by their daughters.  Thus, in different ways, both Hispanic and Caucasian mothers had biased perceptions of their daughters’ current, ideal, and most desirable figures.  Despite the body dissatisfaction apparent in girls’ beliefs (more so among Caucasian than Hispanic girls), Caucasian mothers believed girls were more disssatified that was actually the case and Hispanic mothers  This is not to say the girls themselves were Together with Campbell and Klaczynski, these findings suggest that the influences of peers exert on children’s eating behaviors and related beliefs are greater than those exerted by parents.  However, we have found a striking exception these patterns of cross-ethnicity parent-child (dis)similarities: Hispanic-American mothers appear to be better attuned to their children’s body esteem than Caucasian-American mothers.  A key step in our continued analyses of these data will involve examining the extent to which ethnicity, parents’ beliefs, ethnic differences in parent-child discrepancies in child’s body image, predict one of the most important correlates of childhood obesity: Amount and intensity of participation in structured and unstructured physical activities. 

Ethnicity and mediators of obesity stereotype development.  We have now conducted several investigations of obesity stereotypes and their correlates.  In our first study, we used social identity theory to generate predictions about these stereotypes (Klaczynski, Goold, & Mudry, 2004).  Using a measure of “thin idealization” to assess the strength of affiliations with the dominant (i.e., thin”) in-group, we found support for several social identity predictions and for one version of the “self-esteem corollary” of social identity theory.  Specifically, stronger thin in-group affiliations, higher body esteem (but not higher global self-esteem), and beliefs in the “upward mobility potential” (i.e., through their own efforts individuals can “de-affiliate” with the low status obese group and align with the higher status thin group) predicted a negative “obese persona” schema.  However, explicit measures of anti-obese attitudes were not related to obesity stereotypes and the variance we explained in obesity stereotypes was modest.  Although the data were promising, they also suggested that implicit/experiential processing plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of obesity stereotypes.

This preliminary research set the stage for a more detailed developmental investigation of obesity stereotypes among Caucasian and Hispanic-American children (e.g., Klaczynski, Daniel, & Kurie, 2005).  Instead of relying strictly on questionnaires to elicit attributions toward the obese, we developed stories and created pictures of obese and non-obese, male and female, Caucasian- and Hispanic-American children.   These pictures were designed such that we controlled for differences in attractiveness between pictures of children in two ethnic groups and, within ethnic groups, “morphed” the pictures such that they retained basic features of appearance (e.g., facial structure), and varied only in adiposity.  Consistent with our original study, across ethnicities, thin idealization, body-esteem, and beliefs that obese children can control their weight predicted anti-obesity reasoning biases (i.e., selective violations of the law of large numbers, such that participants generalized more negative attributes from individual obese “targets” than from otherwise identical non-obese “targets”) and anti-obese attributional biases.  Consistent with our expectations, anti-obesity biases increased from late childhood through mid-late adolescence.  Although the slopes of these age-related increases were steepest for obese Caucasian girls and somewhat more gradual for obese Hispanic boys, they nonetheless were found all obese target categories, and for both Hispanic- and Caucasian-American participants.  Perhaps most importantly, age increases in anti-obesity biases were not entirely mediated by body esteem, thin idealization, and control beliefs.  These findings led us to speculate that, as explicit beliefs in thin idealization strengthen from late childhood through mid-late adolescence, the ease with which a “thin is in” heuristic is activated increases with age.  The age-related increases we observed thus suggest that, at least in this belief domain, experiential processing becomes more predominant with age (for similar evidence in other domains, see Davidson, 1995 Jacobs & Potenza, 1991; Klaczynski, 2001b; Klaczynski & Narasimham, 1998b; Markovits & Dumas, 1999; Reyna, Brainerd, & Lloyd, 2005; Reyna & Eillis, 1994).

Obesity avoidance, contagion, culture, priming, and beverage preferences. The findings also led me to question whether social identity theory could provide an adequate explanation of stereotype development in general and, specifically, of the development of obesity stereotypes.  Relying on evolutionary theories of eating and adaptation, evidence that the parents of obese children have lower expectations than the parents of non-obese children, medical evidence that obese individuals have shorter-life expectations, are sick more often, and evidence more signs of illness than non-obese individuals, dual-process theory, and theories of “magical contagion,” I hypothesized that obese children are not “merely” negatively stereotyped by other children, but also are actively avoided by those children.  In a first test of this hypotheses (Klaczynski, Mudry, & Tam, 2006), we assigned 10-11 year-old children to a control and one of two priming conditions.  In the priming condition of interest, children were read stories that linked ingestion to illness.  Later, both control and primed children made attributions to obese, non-children, and thin children (depicted in drawings, as described previously, and figures).  Several findings are noteworthy.  First, in both conditions, thin idealization and control beliefs predicted negative obesity stereotypes; however, the predictive value of these variables was far weaker in the priming than in the control condition.  Second, relative to non-obese children, negative characterizations of obese children were stronger in the priming than in the control condition.  Critically, although the priming effect was not as strong, participant in the ingestion-illness condition also made more negative attributions to overly thin targets than they did to average weight targets.  In a third condition (based on one of the currently predominant theories of obesity stereotyping), participants were primed to attribute obesity to internal personal characteristics.  Although the prime increased obesity stereotyping (a) that effect was only about 50% as powerful as the illness prime and (b) unlike the illness prime, children’s characterizations of very thin “targets” were unaffected. 

This finding led to more recent work with 6-13 year-old Chinese (in Guilin, China) and American children.  In this work, we presented children a series of beverages, with the cover story that our “company” had adopted a new strategy for creating drinks that “most kids would like”—that is, we “employed” children to help us create the beverages   Photographs of the children purported to have “created” the beverages (obese or non-obese, boy or girl in the American pilot study; obese or non-obese, boy or girl, American or Chinese in the Guilin study) were included in the labels attached to each beverage.  All beverages were, in fact, flavored identically; however, beverage color was randomly altered across participants to lend the impression that the drinks would have different tastes.  Participants tasted small samples (presentation order was determined randomly for each child) of each beverage, rated how much they liked each, indicated the chances they could get sick if they drank large quantities of each beverage, and after later re-examining the pictures of the children on the bottle labels, indicated which of the children was likely to have an illness. 

Across cultures, we found that participants were far more likely to dislike beverages “created” by obese children than by non-obese children, believed they were more likely to get sick by drinking the obese-child created drinks, and indicated that the “drink creators” were much more likely to have illnesses when the creators were obese than when they were non-obese children.  These findings have struck some as counterintuitive: Should not children have expected beverages made by obese children to taste better than those made by non-obese children?  In fact, children do have this expectation.  However, a critical finding was that prior beliefs did not predict taste preferences.  One might argue that the finding that children believed that the obese drink creators were more likely to have an illness than non-obese drink creators arose were a function of their prior tasting experiences.  This appears not to be the case, however.  We also assigned the participants to either a control or a “contagion” condition.  Prior to tasting the beverages, participants in both conditions were read a story about a hypothetical child who had eaten an unfamiliar (and disgusting looking) food and, later, had become sick.  In the “contagion” condition, the story concludes by noting that the sick child’s classmates also contracted the illness.  Being “primed” to the idea that intake->illness->contamination substantially increased differences in reactions to beverages made by obese and non-obese children.  In other words, being read the contagion story appears to have made participants like beverages “created” by obese children even worse than in the control condition.  The findings are consistent with an evolutionary perspective on obesity and with recent data on the development of children folk theories of biology.