The girls who are told they’re “too fat” before they hit puberty are more likely to be obese in the future, according to new research published in JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers focused on 10-year-old girls who were called fat by people close to them, and found they were more likely to be at an unhealthy body weight by age 19 compared to other girls who were never shamed about their weight in this way.
“Making people feel bad about their weight can backfire,” Janet Tomiyama, an assistant psychology professor at UCLA and the senior author of the new study, explained. “It can be demoralizing. And we know that when people feel bad, they often reach out to food for comfort.”
Tomiyama’s study isn’t the only evidence of this dynamic. Previous research has found that “fat-shaming,” or the practice of ostracizing people for their body size, often ends up leading them to gain more weight. This is often exacerbated by the messages that Americans pick up in the media’s coverage of the national obesity epidemic. Alarmist news stories that present overweight individuals in an overly negative light can backfire by fueling emotional eating, too.
And society’s persistent focus on what’s considered to be a desirable body shape has mental health consequences, too. Calling young girls fat increases their chance of struggling with depression later in life. Even if parents have the best intentions and are trying to make sure their children are healthy, focusing on weight instead of emphasizing nutrition makes their kids more likely to develop body image issues.
Negative body image contributes to disordered eating, an epidemic that impacts an estimated 30 million Americans. Anorexia is the most fatal mental health issue in this country, largely because the rates of suicide are higher among people who suffer from disordered eating than they are for people with other psychological disorders.
Nonetheless, this approach to weight — particularly when it comes to female bodies — is deeply ingrained in our society, and unrealistic body images are persistently marketed toward kids. Now, eating disorders are beginning to display themselves even earlier than before. Disorders like anorexia and bulimia are increasingly putting kids under the age of 12 in the hospital.
“It’s such a strong cultural idea that children are going to start picking up on it immediately, just like gender and what it is to be properly feminine,” Amy Farrell, a professor at Dickinson and the author of a book on fat shaming, told CNN in a 2012 article about the impact of stigmatizing weight. “Fat children are treated differently than slimmer children from the time they’re very young. We hear concern from parents about their babies being fat. We think someone is less intelligent if they are fat.”
“We don’t really need to talk about fat or not fat if we want to talk about health,” Tomiyama pointed out, noting that weight isn’t always an accurate marker of how healthy someone is. “Just say let’s go eat healthier and let’s exercise and not even make weight part of the conversation.”