Research by the University of Leeds shows that children as young as four years old are averse to story book characters who are overweight, adding fuel to the notion that fat-shaming becomes a social norm at a very early age.

According to the Daily Mail, the study revealed that 126 children in the UK between the ages of four and six would rather have a skinny or disabled friend than a fat one. The children were read a storybook, which covered the same plot, showing three children - one overweight, one normal weight, and one disabled. After the story, the children were asked questions about the characters.

The study found that the children thought the fat character - named Alfie or Alfina, depending on the gender - was less likely to win a race, do well in school, be happy with his looks, and get invited to parties. The children also said that fat Alfie was more likely to be naughty at school.

Both fat Alfie and wheelchair Alfie were thrown to the side in favor of Thomas, the more "normal" character weightwise, as a personal friend. In fact, only one child chose fat Alfie over Thomas.

"This research confirms young children's awareness of the huge societal interest in body size," said Professor Andrew Hill, who lead the research. "It shows that by school entry age UK children have taken on board the negativity associated with fatness and report its penalties in terms of appearance, school activities and socially."

Weight bias has become a hot-button issue as of late, likely because the obesity rate has increased so rapidly in recent years. In the U.S. alone, 28.5 percent of the population is obese. Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Senior Research Scientist at the Rudd Center for Food and Policy at Yale University, said that weight bias and stigma affect millions and can have serious psychological, social, and economic consequences.

According to Puhl's research, parents and teachers alike said that young people are more likely to be bullied for being overweight than for any other reason. This, she contended, is because children understand through television, films, and other media that weight bias is socially accepted.

Professor Hill of the University of Leeds study agreed, claiming that kids are picking up on prejudice toward fat people from their daily interactions as well as television shows. "I think we have an underlying social commentary about weight and morals and that the morality of people is based on their shape," he said. "I think that is very powerful and kids are sensitive to it."

Hill A. Young People Appear To Reject Story Characters Who Are Obese. Leeds Institute of Health and Sciences. 2013.

Puhl R. Weight Bias In The News Media and Public Health Campaigns: Are We Fighting Obesity or Obese Persons?. Yale Rudd Center For Food Policy & Obesity. 2013.