On "Thomas the Tank Engine," references to Christmas have been replaced with “winter holidays”; Cookie Monster has started preaching that “Cookies are a sometimes food.” Increasingly, children’s television has a reputation for being politically correct. But a new study reveals that television aimed at kids contains at least as many weight-stigmatizing comments as programs meant for adults.
A team led by Marla Eisenberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, used content analysis to look at the incidence of weight-stigmatizing incidents in popular children’s TV programs. Their paper, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, appeared online last week.
Eisenberg and her colleagues had 2,793 Minnesota adolescents (sixth through twelfth grades; mean age 14.4) list their top three favorite TV programs. They identified the ten most popular programs, and randomly selected three episodes from the most recent season of each show. Some of the shows students picked were aimed at kids—“SpongeBob SquarePants,” “iCarly”—while others were meant for adult audiences: “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” “CSI.”
After selecting a total of 30 episodes, the researchers went through and tracked the number of comments or incidents that stigmatized characters for their weight. They also took note of the gender of the targets and perpetrators in each incident. Across all the episodes, they identified 66 instances of appearance or weight-related stigmatization. Half the episodes contained at least one insult directly related to weight; 76.7 percent included some kind of negative comment or incident related to a character’s weight or appearance. Animated sitcoms tended to be the worst offenders, with an average of 10.7 stigmatizing incidences per episode.
The proportion of stigmatizing incidents relating to weight was higher in youth-directed shows (58.3 percent) than in shows for general audiences (38.3 percent). Overall—and perhaps most worryingly—weight-stigmatizing comments were directed just as often at normal-weight women as at overweight women. Male characters were more likely to make stigmatizing comments—they accounted for 72.7 percent—but they also made up nearly two-thirds of the targets (63.6 percent).
“The current results reflect a society that is overly critical about body shape and size, particularly for females, even for those of a healthy weight status,” write the authors. “This stigmatization sends a message to young people that no matter what their weight, their bodies are not good enough. Such a social norm is expected to contribute to body dissatisfaction and associated health problems such as disordered eating and depressive symptoms.”
Plenty of other research corroborates the notion that messages on TV can be harmful to teenage girls’ self-image. In a famous project carried out in the 1990s, a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School looked at how the introduction of television affected teenage girls in Fiji. The traditional Fijian ideal holds that a round, fleshy body is the most attractive. In 1995, just a few weeks after the Fijian island of Viti Luvu began receiving satellite signals and beaming western TV shows like “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place,” Becker surveyed 63 Fijian teenage girls on their attitudes toward food and their bodies. At that point, rates of eating disorders were fairly low; just three percent of the girls said they had ever vomited to control their weight. Three years later, in 1998, Becker returned to the island and surveyed another group of 65 girls from the same school; at that point, 15 percent had vomited in order to control their weight. Perhaps more tellingly, Becker found a correlation between the amount of TV the girls watched and the likelihood that they had negative feelings about their bodies: Girls who said in 1998 that they watched TV three or more nights a week were 50 percent more likely to describe themselves as “too big or fat,” though the girls’ average weight hadn’t changed.