Study: Teasing about weight can affect pre-teens profoundly

September 7, 2010

Schoolyard taunts of any type can potentially damage a child's sense of self-confidence. But a new study suggests that a particular kind of teasing - about weight - can have distinctive and significant effects on how pre-teens perceive their own bodies.

The research, among the first to specifically examine the impact of weight-based on pre-adolescents, also hints that the practice can cause other health and emotional issues for its victims.

"We tend to think of adolescence as the time when kids become sensitive about their , but our findings suggest that the seeds of are actually being sown much earlier," said Timothy D. Nelson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the study's lead author. "Criticism of weight, in particular, can contribute to issues that go beyond general problems with self-esteem."

For the study, Nelson and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of public school students whose average age was 10.8 years. They collected participants' heights and weights and calculated their , then examined the relationships between weight-related criticism and children's perceptions of themselves.

Their results showed that overweight pre-teens who endured weight-based criticism tended to judge their bodies more harshly and were less satisfied with their body sizes than students who weren't teased about their weight.

The effects of weight-based teasing were significant even when researchers removed the effects of students' BMI from their analysis in an attempt to separate the relative contributions of physical reality and children's social interactions to their body perceptions, Nelson said.

Because children who develop such negative views of their bodies are at higher risk for internalizing problems, developing irregular eating behaviors and ongoing victimization, researchers said these results should be a signal for more early identification and intervention efforts at schools.

"In a way, weight-related criticism is one of the last socially acceptable forms of criticism," Nelson said. "There's often a sense that overweight people 'deserve' it, or that if they are continually prodded about their weight, they'll do something about it.

"In fact, our research suggests that this kind of criticism tends to increase the victim's body dissatisfaction, which has been shown to be a factor in poorer outcomes with pediatric weight management programs. It becomes something of a vicious cycle."

The study notes that children's views of their bodies are a complex interaction between physical reality and socially influenced perceptions. Peer criticism about weight is an important social factor that could affect how pre-adolescents interpret the physical reality of their bodies, Nelson said.

The findings, Nelson said, should be relevant to understanding the consequences of weight-related criticism and considering interventions with preadolescents who are frequent targets of the taunts.

"While weight-related criticism is identifiable, programs targeting it are limited," he said. "Early identification of children who are targets of frequent and chronic weight-based criticism may also be important in reducing it and its harmful effects."

More information: Nelson authored the study, which appears in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, with Chad D. Jensen and Ric G. Steele of the Clinical Child Psychology Program at the University of Kansas.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Dutch courage—Alcohol improves foreign language skills

October 18, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King's College London, shows that bilingual speakers' ability to speak a second ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.