The Effect Being Called ‘Fat’ Has on 10-Year-Old Girls, 9 Years Later

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Are girls shocked into changing their lifestyle, or is the result altogether darker?

Girls told more often that they are fat at 10-years-old are more likely to be obese at age 19, a new study finds (Hunger & Tomiyama, 2014).

The study of 1,166 girls in Northern California found the label could have come from their teacher, parent, sibling, classmate, or a friend.

The increase in weight wasn’t just because fatter girls were more likely to be told they were fat.

The results persisted after the girls’ weight at 10-years-old was taken into account statistically, along with other factors like education, race and household income.

The study’s senior author, A. Janet Tomiyama, was flabbergasted by the results:

“Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this.

Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained.

“That means it’s not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese.”

Another of the study’s authors, Jeffrey Hunger, explained that:

“Being labeled as too fat may lead people to worry about personally experiencing the stigma and discrimination faced by overweight individuals, and recent research suggests that experiencing or anticipating weight stigma increases stress and can lead to overeating.”

The study, which is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, also found that the more people that told a girl she was fat, the more obese she became at 19-years-old.

The results are a damning demonstration of the effects of ‘weight stigma’:

“…considerable research underscores the detrimental effects of weight stigma on the physical health and well-being of children and adolescents, and nationally representative, longitudinal data show weight-based discrimination is associated with weight gain among older individuals.” (Hunger & Tomiyama, 2014).

In other words, trying to use shame to get someone to change their lifestyle is unlikely to work:

“Anti-obesity efforts that rely on stigmatizing weight (eg, using harsh language or stereotypical portrayals of overweight individuals) may impede health promotion efforts, as weight stigma is often negatively related to behavior change and thus seems unlikely to result in weight loss.” (Hunger & Tomiyama, 2014).

Image credit: menblog

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 8 May 2014

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