Were you ever overweight as a child and had to endure the inevitable onslaught of teasing from other children? ‘Sticks and stones’, right? Well, not so fast. A new study released shows how weight-based discrimination against children has a powerful impact on young people’s quality of life, body image and self-esteem.
"The stigmatization directed at obese children by their peers, parents, educators and others is pervasive and often unrelenting," researchers with Yale University and the University of Hawaii at Manatoa wrote in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin. The paper was based on a review of all research on youth weight bias over the past 40 years, said lead author Rebecca M. Puhl of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
"The quality of life for kids who are obese is comparable to the quality of life of kids who have cancer," Puhl said. "These kids are facing stigma from everywhere they look in society, whether it’s media, school or at home."
Racism, antisemitism, sexism: these are all prejudices that society now combats openly, but this report demonstrates how the bias against overweight kids is socially accepted, hardly ever challenged and often overlooked. Surprisingly, even parents often regard and treat their own children negatively. Several studies showed that overweight girls got less college financial support from their parents than average weight girls. Other studies showed teasing by parents was common.
"It is possible that parents may take out their frustration, anger and guilt on their overweight child by adopting stigmatizing attitudes and behavior, such as making critical and negative comments toward their child," the authors wrote, suggesting further research is needed.
Stereotypes of obese children are blatant and widespread in today’s society. "Mean, stupid, ugly and sloppy" are some of the negative adjectives that children – even as young as three year old – have used to describe overweight peers. And, in a 1999 study of 115 middle and high school teachers, 20 percent said they believed obese people are untidy, less likely to succeed and more emotional.
The Yale-Hawaii research cites evidence that overweight adults face discrimination and calls for more research be conducted to see whether negative stereotypes lead to discriminatory behavior against children as well. It also recommends finding ways to reduce stigma and negative attitudes.
"Weight-based discrimination is as important a problem as racial discrimination or discrimination against children with physical disabilities," the report concludes. "Remedying it needs to be taken equally seriously…"
We live in a world where adults berate and punish themselves and each other openly for being overweight. Is it any wonder so many smart, attractive and capable women and men are driven by fear into desperate dieting, binge eating, emotional eating, or other eating disorders? I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s high time we take the weight of this stigma off everyone’s shoulders, but the reality is, until enough grown ups repudiate these external and internal attitudes, ‘fat’ will remain a powerful and debilitating label for ourselves and our kids.
By Laura Brooks