Garfield. Fat Albert. That evil Queen of Hearts.
Full-figured, all of them—and apparently they're turning our children into little butterballs, too.
That's the takeaway, at least, from a new study conducted by researchers at Colorado State University, which found that exposing children to overweight cartoon characters can lead to overeating. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Hold up, you're probably thinking. Isn't it important for our children's mental health for cartoons to depict a variety of human (and, uh, cat) body shapes? Should cartoons really go the route of fashion glossies and perpetuate the myth that razor-sharp collarbones are the ultimate must-have for fall? (Say nothing of Disney's pantheon of size-zero princesses.)
Well, that's part of the problem. Children's brains are like Play-Doh, and either extreme can be damaging.
Previous research has shown that children's eating habits tend to be influenced by the body shapes of the people around them. The researchers set out to test if cartoon characters—or, for that matter, any other fictional character they encounter in TV shows, movies, advertisements, or video games—could have the same influence.
The researchers surveyed children aged 6 to 14 and divided them up in three groups: One was shown an image of a "normal-weight" cartoon character; another was shown the same character depicted as overweight, while the third group was shown a "neutral control picture." Afterward, the kids were offered candy to thank them for their participation.
The result? The children who saw the fat character ate more than twice as many candies as the other kids, those little gluttons.
With that in mind, the researchers conducted a second experiment in which the children were shown both the overweight and normal-weight characters at once. Once again, the children took more candy after being shown the overweight cartoon with and without a normal-weight one.
Yes, the mere presence of a fat 'toon—even posed alongside a skinnier one—made them want to gorge themselves.
The researchers then decided to conduct a third experiment, but this time they gave the kids a survey about healthy eating choices either before or after being exposed to the fat and normal-weight characters, with the end reward being cookies. And finally, some good news! The kids who were forced to think about healthy eating took the same number of cookies regardless of which character they saw.
Not to traffic in cliché, but this is important food for thought. While children should be educated that the human body is beautiful in a variety of forms—svelte, lumpen, fleshy, sinewy, cashew-shaped, whatever!—it's worth remembering that ovoid cartoons might make your slobbering toddlers reach for one more package of Famous Amos.
The researchers encourage marketers to remember this, too. After all, what sinister genius decided that it was a great idea to sell kids on French fries with Grimace, that plum-colored totem to fat-fuckery?
Still, the study authors also note that "[parents,] educators, and people concerned with public policy should be aware of the fact that the characters in children's lives, whether in a video game, a book, a TV show, or a movie, are likely to influence their behaviors. Parents and others should be aware of what kids are exposed to and consider separating food from entertainment."
The researchers further suggest that "games or quizzes about healthy choices right before lunch could be used to decrease the number of poor food choices kids make." Sure, education is key—but you could always make cookies and candy less available to your clutch of squealing moppets, too.