Body ImageHealth and BodyOn The PulseWeight Loss and Diet Industry

Fourth graders feeling fat: The plummeting self-image of young girls

By September 25, 2009 4 Comments
Girls like young Sarah Totonchi were convinced that they were already fat at the age of 9.

Girls like Sarah Totonchi (shown here in 1986) were convinced they were fat at age nine

In his recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Zaslow reports recently contacting women from a 1986 study of fourth graders, in which 75% of the girls revealed that they felt like they weighed too much, and more than half claimed to be on diets.

The girls weren’t alone in their concerns about weight: a fourth-grade boy, when interviewed, said “Fat girls aren’t like regular girls. They aren’t attractive.”

But the societal pressure on girls has increased exponentially during the two decades since the first interview. The original girls from the study had reported drinking diet sodas and watching exercise videos. Now one of them, a middle-school teacher, has to fight with her students to get them to take a few bites of their lunches.

There have been several books in recent years that portray the trend towards increasing body image issues in young girls, which include Mary Piper’s Reviving Ophelia and Joan Jacob Brumberg’s The Body Project. But perhaps the most visceral account comes from Marya Hornbacher, in her autobiographical book, Wasted.

wastedHornbacher relates several incidents from her childhood: arguing with a friend at age five about who could eat food with the least amount of sugar, panicking after eating two slices of pizza at a party, feeling as though the body in the mirror belonged to someone else. She writes:

“At four I stood, a tiny Eve, choked with mortification at my body, the curve and plane of belly and thigh. At four I realized that I simply would not do. My body, being solid, was too much.” (p. 15)

At age nine, Hornbacher began inducing vomiting, and entered the nightmare world of bulimia and anorexia.

What compels girls as young as nine to embark on dangerous diets and eating disorders? To imagine fourth graders conscientiously sipping diet sodas and watching exercise videos is strange enough, but the situation has moved far beyond that. However, when girls grow up surrounded by media images of alarmingly thin women and food advertisements that link weight with worth, is it really so surprising?

Even one voice of sanity in a girl’s life can make a difference. Don’t be afraid to speak to any young girls that you know, and let them know that their value doesn’t depend on their weight. The Dove website has some great resources, including the True You mentoring guide and some excellent films, especially “Onslaught” and “Amy”.

Help combat the messages young women receive: speak out today!


Elizabeth Weaver was trained as an artist, and currently writes for an international women’s organization. She is passionate about helping women to understand their own unique beauty, and hopes to be a good self-image role model to her 3-year-old god-daughter.