Anyone with half a brain (or a heart) knows that poor body image can have a devastating effect on physical health. Just think about the incidence of eating disorders in children and teens who've faced bullying. Now, a new study out of UCLA suggests that telling girls that they're fat makes them significantly more likely to be obese as young adults.
Published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the study looked at 2,379 girls living in California, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. (a group that was almost evenly divided between white and African-American), and tracked their height and weight as they aged from 10 to 19. In the beginning of the study, 58% of the participants had been called "too fat" by a close family member, friend, or boy or girl she liked.
The data showed that the girls who had been called fat as children were 66% more likely to be clinically obese at the end of the study. The results were unchanged when researchers controlled for a number of factors that could have contributed to individuals' likelihood of becoming obese, such as race, parental education, income, and the age at which they reached puberty, and even whether or not the girls were actually obese to begin with. As author A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD explains in the study's press release, "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."
How does putting down someone's physique lead to obesity? The researchers think that stress from facing weight stigma could increase the production of cortisol, a hormone that has been shown to contribute to weight gain. Of course, as Dr. Tomiyama says, "When people feel bad, they tend to eat more, not decide to diet or take a jog."
We've heard over and over again that when it comes to young girls and body image, words play a significant role in mental and physical health later in life. Now we can add this study to the reams of research that couldn't be clearer: Fat stigma is causing serious, demonstrable harm to the wellness of our girls.