Teasing Kids About Their Weight Makes Them Gain More — Way Into Adulthood

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Body-shaming doesn’t just psychologically damage children, it can make their weight woes even worse into adulthood

It’s hard to be a kid or teen no matter what you look like. The reality is, children can be cruel, for no reason whatsoever. But for adolescents who struggle with their weight or other body image issues, bullying can be next level tortuous — and even have serious long-term repercussions on their physical health.

According to a study published on Thursday in the journal Pediatric Obesity, researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and the National Institutes of Health, discovered that kids who were teased and made fun of for their weight were more likely to gain weight into adulthood. Additionally, the more teasing they endure, the more weight they will likely gain.

“There’s this school of thought that says [weight-based] teasing might have a motivating effect on youth,” study author Natasha Schvey, assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University told NPR. “This study shows that that’s not only not true but that teasing might increase weight gain over time.”

Over a period of 15 years, researchers observed a group of 110 children and young teens with the average age of 12, who either had two parents who were overweight or were overweight themselves. The reason why they recruited the former, is because having overweight parents is a risk factor for obesity. Initially, children were asked if they had been teased because of their weight. A whopping 62 percent of overweight children had been teased at least once.

Researchers followed up with study participants an average of 8.5 years later, and some up to 15. Their findings were somewhat surprising. Whether they had been overweight or not at the beginning of the study, those who were teased for their weight gained an average of 33 percent more body mass and 91 percent more fat than their peers. So basically, even that skinny girl who is mentally tortured for being “too fat” is more likely to struggle with adult obesity because of the body-shaming.

This isn’t the first research to find that weight-related bullying and the negative stigma surrounding childhood obesity can have long-term effects on both physical and mental health. A 2017 study came to exactly the same conclusion — that weight-based teasing predicted future obesity and a higher BMI 15 years later — while a 2003 study found that weight-based harassment can be harmful to young people’s psychosocial well-being. One possible reason for the relationship between teasing and weight gain could be due to the fact that teasing can be a “source of bio-chemical stress” leading to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol — which can potentially increase appetite.

Not that we needed any scientific proof that bullying is bad, this study is clearly reason number one-million-seventy-six why we have got to do more to end it. In case you are wondering why kids turn into bullies, there are various reasons. These include their role models (which can often be, um, us), having uninvolved parents, peer pressure, experiencing bullying themselves or a need for power.

Sure, schools should have anti-bullying policies and talk to students about the potential long-term repercussions that teasing someone about their weight can have on them. But remember those lyrics “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”? As parents, we really need to step it up and take responsibility for some of it.

The next time you consider making a comment about your own weight or someone else’s in front of your kiddos, check yourself. You may want to keep in mind that your little people are always listening and can totally pick up the negative stigma associated to weight.