“Sheila” has been self-conscious about her weight for as long as she can remember. When she looks back at childhood pictures of herself, she notes that although she was far from willowy, she was also anything but obese. Yet, she recalls her parents' frequent judgments about her own and others' weights. "To my parents, thinness represented so many things: attractiveness, self control, even being morally superior somehow."
When Sheila gained weight during puberty, her parents’ feedback to her was unequivocal: “No matter what, don’t become fat.” Sheila now believes that her earlier fears about weight gain, feelings of shame about her body, anxiety about other’s opinions of her, and resentment of her parents’ attempts to control her have all contributed to her current obesity.
I have seen a number of "Sheila's" in my clinical work, and their stories have many similarities. Sheila and others have noted that weight shaming is counterproductive to their weight loss efforts, and recent research supports that labeling children as fat can result in significant and unhealthy consequences for them down the road.
Overweight individuals are frequently stereotyped as lazy, unsuccessful, or having inadequate self-control, and stigmatization can come from both strangers and those close to the individual. Frequently, the overweight are targets of hypercritical comments, discrimination, and bullying. Weight-based discrimination has serious consequences, however, including lower self-esteem, depression, decreased life-satisfaction, and poorer physical health. Furthermore, weight stigmatization has been linked to problematic eating behaviors, including binge eating, as well as avoidance of exercise – all of which increase the risk of obesity.
In a society where overweight is associated with negative attributes, and where many equate thinness with virtue, family and friends may attempt to assert control over a child’s behavior via labeling or inducing shame related to weight gain. As with adults, weight stigma and bullying are associated with negative effects on children’s health behaviors and well being, however. Furthermore, a new study has found that simply labeling young girls as “fat” is significantly correlated with becoming obese ten years later.
Researchers funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute followed over 2000 girls from age 10 to 19. They found girls who had been labeled as “too fat” by age 10 were statistically significantly more likely to become obese by age 19. Notably, this effect was independent of the girls’ body mass indexes (BMIs) in childhood. In other words, fat labeling in childhood was associated with increased odds of becoming obese by age 19, regardless of whether the child was overweight or not when the labeling began. These results held even after controlling for the effects of household income, level of parental education, race, and age of first menstrual period. The negative impact of weight labeling was slightly more pronounced when family members were the source of the labeling. The researchers concluded that labeling may set in motion stress-related “obsesogenic” processes and trigger coping behaviors that result in excess weight gain.
In summary, weight-based discrimination and stigmatization are both common and linked to poorer emotional and physical health in those t
argeted. Weight labeling in childhood has been linked to a greater likelihood of becoming obese by young adulthood. "Fat shaming” and other negative responses to weight are counterproductive to the development of healthy habits and harmful in general.
Hunger, J. A., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2014). Weight Labeling and Obesity: A Longitudinal Study of Girls Aged 10 to 19 Years. JAMA Pediatr. Published online April 28, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.122
Sutin AR, Terracciano A (2013) Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity. PLoS ONE 8(7): e70048. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070048