Weight stigma and your child: what parents need to know

Weight stigma and your child: what parents need to know

Parents need to know the dangers of weight stigma because it impacts everyone. And whether your child is thin, fat*, or in between, their health is impacted by weight stigma.

*Throughout this article I use the word “fat” as a descriptor. It is important to note that this is different than using “fat” as a slur. Many fat justice advocates say that we need to de-stigmatize the word fat. Instead, we should use it appropriately as a neutral descriptor to normalize fat bodies.

Popular media and healthcare providers scream about the dangers of fat cells. But the real danger is weight stigma and weight discrimination. Weight stigma contributes to physical and mental health complications. These include weight cycling (a natural and expected physiological response to dieting) and eating disorders. Therefore we need to tackle weight stigma in order to reduce these risks to our kids’ health.

body image for girls ebook

What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight. It reflects internalized societal attitudes towards body size and impacts how we treat each other. Therefore understanding and counteracting weight stigma will help your child avoid body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

Weight stigma is damaging for people who are larger. But it’s also bigotry that impacts people of all body sizes. Ask just about anyone walking down the street today and they are likely carrying internalized weight stigma and body loathing. This impacts their feelings about their body and themselves. There is no benefit to weight stigma, and there are many downsides.

The media and weight stigma

Media and entertainment outlets frequently portray strongly biased views of people who live in larger bodies. They promote weight stigma constantly by depicting fat people in dehumanizing and stigmatizing images. These include newspapers, magazines, books, movies, documentaries, videos, photographs, social media accounts, and more.

The media shows fat people eating fattening foods, sitting, and wearing tight, ill-fitting clothing. But it shows thin people eating colorful salads, exercising, and looking stylish.

The media portrays fat people as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent, and a drain on the nation’s resources. This is an ignorant an bigoted presentation. It has solidified the strong belief that fat is bad and thin is good. It’s important to note that the media’s revenue comes from advertising. It’s undeniable that the +$70 billion weight loss industry supports the very existence of our media outlets.

Healthcare and weight stigma

The second leading source of weight stigma are people in the medical and healthcare professions. This creates a significant barrier to healthcare for anyone who lives in a larger body. No visit to the doctor, regardless of the purpose, begins without an attempt to weigh the body.

Anyone in the “overweight” and above categories is lectured about their weight. This is regardless of why they came for a visit. It is also based only on weight, not health behaviors. Many receive lectures about weight reduction. This is despite the fact that there is no proven, safe, and effective method for reducing weight.

Weight stigma in healthcare often results in delayed diagnosis and treatment for many people who have serious medical conditions. Doctors are notoriously fat-phobic. Surveys show the majority of doctors actively dislike larger patients. And this is a major problem considering that more than 60% of their patient population is plus-size.

The playground and weight stigma

Our kids grow up in an ecosystem that is full of weight stigma. As early as preschool, children prefer thin figures in drawings and stories [1]. By elementary school, larger children report unsatisfactory peer relations, including social rejection [2].

Children who are larger are at increased risk for being targets of weight-related teasing [3]. And they also experience more non-weight-related teasing and bullying [4], and other forms of victimization such as physical aggression [5].

As early as the first grade, fat kids are treated differently by their peers. They are more likely to be treated poorly and be disliked. They often struggle with loneliness and friendships. Larger children are more likely to be rejected, made fun of, teased, picked on, and disliked [6].

This is the trickle-down effect of parents, teachers, doctors, and the media actively promoting weight stigma. Children are ostracized, bullied, and discriminated against. And this trauma has lifelong consequences that are much more serious than adipose tissue.

Weight stigma leads to poor health and eating disorders

The “War on Obesity” has failed to reduce the national weight. It has, however, succeeded in increasing weight stigma, which many researchers say is deeply health-damaging. Some people suggest that weight-shaming is good because it encourages kids to lose weight. But weight teasing and bullying in adolescence leads to higher (not lower) weight 15 years later.

This means that the “War on Obesity” is actually causing people to gain weight. People who are exposed to weight stigma are also more likely to exhibit eating disorder behaviors including extreme dieting and self-induced vomiting [7].

In cultures with fat stigma, we see more young women who express dissatisfaction or disgust with their bodies, which is an essential precursor (and continuing accompaniment) of eating disorders. [8]. 

There is a strong relationship between the “obesity epidemic” and the proliferation of eating disorders. “If fat bodies were accepted and not hated in our culture, fat people would not embark on restrictive eating or disordered eating in order to lose weight, and the majority would not develop eating disorders.” [9]

You may think it’s healthy to put your child on a diet. But diets have serious consequences. Instead, parents should help them manage the impact and reduce kids’ exposure to weight stigma.

What you can do at home

How you treat your child at home can be an important way to reduce their risk of eating disorders. A home that rejects weight stigma and dieting is safer for your child’s body and mind. And it’s also the right thing to do. No other marginalized community is as openly ridiculed and hated as fat people, and that’s simply unacceptable.

Here are a few basic rules to implement at home. Enforce these rules across all family members and anyone who enters your home without exception. Your child needs to know that bigotry and discrimination are not allowed or acceptable, no matter what.

1. No diets

Nobody in the home should even go on a restrictive diet with the purpose of losing weight. Read why

2. Stop food policing

A wide variety of food should be available to everyone in the home without restriction or monitoring. Read why

3. Don’t fat shame

Don’t allow anyone to tease or criticize another person’s body. This applies to anyone in the family, outside of the family, a celebrity, a stranger, etc. Read why

4. Avoid glorifying body-types

Everyone should learn to avoid making comments about “perfect bodies” and glorifying any particular body type. Don’t praise people for weight loss, discuss methods to achieve weight loss or a “perfect butt,” “washboard abs,” etc.

5. No scales

There is no reason to keep a scale in the home. Throw it away.

6. Health at Every SizeⓇ philosophy

Learn about and embrace the HAES approach to health. Read why

What you can do at school

School is the place in which your child is most at risk of fat stigma. Approximately 43% of larger adolescents reported being teased by peers [10]. Therefore to help your child avoid weight stigma, you must advocate for unbiased schools and classrooms. Here are a few goals for your child’s school environment:

1. Language

Health should not be linked to body weight. Dieting of any kind should never be promoted.

2. Dress codes

Dress codes disproportionately impact people who are larger. Make sure your school is fighting weight stigma by eliminating dress codes. Or at least be sure to enforce them consistently across all body sizes.

3. Weighing

Children should not be weighed at school. There is no educational justification for weighing children at school. School weigh-ins perpetuate weight stigma and have no value. Read why

It may be tricky to advocate for your child’s safety at school, but it is essential. Want ideas? Read Lindo Bacon’s guide for teachers and administrators. 

What you can do at the doctor’s office

Weight stigma in the healthcare setting is pervasive and leads to lifetime health impacts. People who experience weight stigma attend fewer doctors’ visits, screenings, immunizations, and more. Help your child learn to navigate the health system by doing the following:

1. Don’t talk about weight

Doctors have been advised by their pediatric association not to discuss weight with children. There are many good reasons for this. The pediatric association knows that weight stigma is a problem. And although many doctors still bring up weight in front of children, parents can confidently interrupt and stop such conversations.

don't talk about my child's weight cards

2. Don’t tell my child to “watch” their weight

Tell your doctor not to suggest weight loss – even the seemingly benign “move more/eat less,” which is entirely unhelpful. Additionally, the term “watch your weight” was coined by Weight Watchers, a multi-billion dollar company that profits off weight stigma. There is no medical evidence that “watching” weight is health-promoting. And it can lead to dangerous preoccupation and obsession with weight.

3. Treat my child without bias

Weight bias is unconscious, which is why it’s so damaging in the healthcare setting. Bring it to the forefront by stating openly that you are dedicated to fighting weight bias. By making it open and conscious, you reduce your child’s exposure through thoughtless comments.

You may feel intimidated and uncomfortable advocating for your child in this way, but you simply must. If your child’s doctor is not open to having these discussions with you, then you must find a different doctor. Period.

Fight the good fight

Our children need to learn anti-discrimination practices. These include fighting for the unbiased treatment of people who have marginalized race, sexuality, gender and gender identity, and weight. Since weight stigma is openly promoted in our culture, this is a revolutionary but much-needed act.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.


References

[1] Su & Aurelia, Preschool children’s perceptions of overweight peers, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 2011

[2] Gable, Krull, & Chang, Implications of Overweight Onset and Persistence for Social and Behavioral Development Between Kindergarten Entry and Third Grade, Applied Developmental Science, 2009

[3] Gray, Kahhan, & Janicke, Implications of Overweight Onset and Persistence for Social and Behavioral Development Between Kindergarten Entry and Third Grade, 2009

[4] Gunnarsdottir, Njardvik, et al., Teasing and social rejection among obese children enrolling in family-based behavioural treatment: Effects on psychological adjustment and academic competencies, International Journal of Obesity 2012

[5] Hayden-Wade et al., Prevalence, characteristics, and correlates of teasing experiences among overweight children vs. non-overweight peers, Obesity Research, 2005

[6] AW Harrist, TM Swindle, et al, The Social and Emotional Lives of Overweight, Obese, and Severely Obese Children, Child Development, 2016

[7] Puhl, et al., The Role of Stigma in Weight Loss Maintenance Among U.S. Adults, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2017

[8] Polivy and Herman, Causes of Eating Disorders, Annual Review of Psychology, 2002

[9] Watkins P., Hugmever A. D., Teaching about eating disorders from a Fat Studies perspective, Transformations, 2012

[10] Van den Berg, Neumark-Sztainer, et al, Racial/ethnic differences in weight-related teasing in adolescents, Obesity, 2008

[11] Reiter-Purtill, Ridel, et al, The benefits of reciprocated friendships for treatment-seeking obese youth, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 2010

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