Being called “fat” may lead to eating disorders in girls years later
The sting of being insulted for your weight or body shape is strong enough to have lasting effects if a new study is correct. According to a report published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, being called “fat” by friends or family may lead to later development of eating disorders in teen girls. In particular, the harsh criticism from family members seems to carry the strongest impact.
The researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles say the findings show that the negative stigmas and stereotypes surrounding weight are strongly associated in the development of disordered eating.
Past studies have shown that teasing or bullying about weight is linked to binge eating and unhealthy weight control methods in boys, as well as increased dieting in girls. However, this latest study is the first to examine the long-term effects of being called “fat” by close friends and family.
“How we talk about weight – especially with young girls – can have really negative effects on mental and physical health,” said lead author Jeffrey Hunger, a psychologist at UCLA.
“Labeling young girls as ‘too fat’ will never spur positive health behaviors; it is simply going to result in poor body image, unhealthy weight control practices, and disordered eating,” he told Reuters Health.
Hunger felt that too little research followed how weight stigma can affect someone over time.
“With this study, I was hoping to contribute to our understanding of these longitudinal consequences by leveraging data from the NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) Growth and Health Study.”
For the study, Hunger and a colleague analyzed data collected from 2,036 girls participating in the NHLBI study.
First, at age 14, the girls were asked to report whether they had been told they were “too fat” by their parents, siblings, best girlfriends, boys they were interested in, any other teens, or their teachers.
Then, at ages 14 and 19, the girls also completed a questionnaire designed to measure unhealthy weight control behaviors, bulimic tendencies, desire for thinness, and body dissatisfaction. During these evaluations, the girls were also asked to report whether they had engaged in unhealthy behaviors such as vomiting or not eating within the last 30 days.
At age 18, the girls were asked whether they used smoking or skipping meals as weight control methods.
According to the findings, girls who had been called “too fat” at age 14 showed much higher scores on the eating disorders assessment at age 19.
This link was consistent even after adjusting for possible outside factors such as body mass index, race, socioeconomic factors, and past disordered eating behaviors at age 14.
The results also indicated that this effect was strongest when the child was labeled “too fat” by family members.
“A somewhat surprising (yet frequently observed) finding is that the effects of weight stigma emerged independent of actual body size,” Hunger noted.
While the effect was similar among heavier and thinner participants, Hunger notes that “heavier girls do disproportionately shoulder the burden of weight stigma, and stigma against heavier bodies is pervasive and systemic.”
“So, we should take care not to equate this to thinner girls’ experiences of weight labeling.”
Based on the findings, Hunger suggests that parents be aware of the risk signs of eating disorders and promote positive body image and healthy eating behaviors at home.
“They can take weight out of the conversation altogether when they are discussing health with their children. Our weight does not dictate our health and most certainly does not dictate our worth.”
“Quit the negative ‘fat talk,’ chronic dieting, and body shame. Recognize and appreciate all that your body can do for you and find eating and exercise habits that are sustainable and enjoyable,” Hunger said.