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

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.

4 thoughts on “Fourth graders feeling fat: The plummeting self-image of young girls

  1. It is shocking that young children feel so poorly about their bodies and themselves, and practice unhealthy behaviors. It is very important to talk to young girls about having healthy self-esteem and body image, but I think what is even more important is to be a strong, confident role model.

    Actions speak louder than words. A mother can’t tell her daughter that her value doesn’t depend on her weight, but then continue to obsess about dieting and exercising, or make comments about her own physical insecurities in front of her daughter. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a constructive way to raise a healthy child.

  2. At nine, I had a healthy, if childish, view of myself and my body. It was good to eat wheat bread and fruit instead of Wonder Bread and MilkyWays–this I knew and respected, and actually enjoyed, as I loved getting produce at the farmer’s market with my parents. I still loved ice cream, though, and once or twice a week would have a candy bar after dinner or a small bowl of ice cream. I played softball and loved Capture the Flag.

    This mindset continued through fifth and sixth grade, though in sixth I fell into the habit of chocolate once a day and instant noodle soup twice or three times a week. It didn’t influence my weight, as I was still physically active, and I didn’t think anything of it.

    However, in seventh grade, I began thinking about my body more, and tried to eat less and excersise more. I shunned noodle soup and resisted chocolate; I often skipped lunch and eventually, after a cast party for the school play and a milkshake, I threw up. After this it only got worse and I continued to vomit and lose weight for about a month before my aunt noticed something wrong and my mother confronted me.

    I was relieved.

    I am now in eighth grade, and love my body. I have recognizable bust and hips, as well as a tummy that is mildly convex when I eat a big meal. I’m currently researching the psycology of eating disorders in order to better understand my experience, and also to channel it into my middle-school graduation project, a graphic novel about a girl with bulimia.

    This is a great article.

  3. It’s startling to hear that the age girls care about the way they look is so young… 4! My goodness.

    I think it’s also important that women do not tease other women about the way they look. Body image is so fragile now, that even a snarky remark from your best friend can really affect you. Really, if you don’t like something about somebody, ignore it and tell them how much you like their eyes or smile or glow in their face…

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