Someone may think they are helping a young girl by telling her she is too fat in the hope that she changes her eating habits. However, that approach can be counterproductive. Studies show that family or others calling young girls “too fat” may actually contribute to making the girls more likely to be fatter as young adults than those not labeled as overweight when they are young.
The stigma of being labeled as fat may actually worsen the problem instead of encouraging girls to become healthier. However, more research is needed to be sure, authors of a new study in JAMA Pediatrics. “We can’t definitively say that calling a girl ‘too fat’ will make her obese,” noted senior author A. Janet Tomiyama from the University of California, Los Angeles, but she did comment that the study brings them closer to drawing that conclusion.
The researchers recruited girls when they were 10 years old and followed them for nine years. At age 10, the girls were asked whether a family member, girlfriend, boy they liked, other kids, or a teacher had told them they were too fat and, if so, who. Out of more than 2,000 girls, almost 1,200 answered “yes.” Ten years later, those girls were more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) – which measures weight relative to height – in the obese range than girls who answered “no,” regardless of what their actual BMI was at age 10.
Previous evidence has shown that youth who feel stigmatized or shamed because of their weight are vulnerable to negative psychological and physical health consequences, according to Rebecca Puhl, who is deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. She pointed out that negative weight labels may contribute to these experiences, according to the study, leaving a lasting and potentially damaging impact.
Girls who had been called “fat” were at higher risk for being fatter or obese at 19 regardless of their actual BMIs at age 10, household income, race and other factors. The stigmatic effect was strongest when the fat label came from family members, which increased the risk of obesity later by 60 percent versus 40 percent when the comments came from others. The researchers caution that this was only an exploratory study and more research needs to be done to validate the conclusions.
Tomiyama commented that she was not surprised that more than half of the girls had been labeled “fat.” “The pressure to be thin in our society is intense,” she noted. Other research has shown that people label themselves and others as ‘overweight’ even when their body mass index is within the ‘normal weight’ range, she added.
Noting the results that show family members calling a girl fat may contribute the most to making her fatter later, she urged parents to address weight and health issues with their children in ways that don’t involve labeling. “There’s no need to say the ‘f’ word at all if you want to improve your child’s health,” she said.
By Dyanne Weiss