Childhood and adolescent obesity is on the rise, and weight-based teasing is definitely not helping — so cut it out! When a child or teen is the victim of weight-based teasing, they face an increased risk of unhealthy weight gain, according to a small but significant new study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity. Weight-based teasing can happen in or out of school, and can be inflicted upon a child or teen by their peers, family members, or other adults.
The findings of this study were multi-layered. For one thing, it revealed that weight-based teasing is prevalent: Nearly two-thirds of the participants who were overweight had been teased for their size, and 1 in 5 participants whose weight was in a healthy range even experienced weight-based teasing, too. A separate study published earlier this year found that LGBTQ teens experience weight-based teasing at a higher rate than their non-LGBTQ peers, with upwards of 77 percent of obese LGBTQ teens reporting weight-based victimization. Over 50 percent of underweight LGBTQ had also reported being bullied for their weight.
Perhaps more importantly, researchers of the latest study found that both healthy weight and overweight groups over time — monitored over an average of 8 years — ended up gaining an average of 33 percent more body mass than their non-teased peers. They calculated that youth who had been subject to weight-based teasing gained fat each year at nearly double the rate of youth who had not been teased.
Natasha Schvey, the study’s lead author, told NPR that these findings refute the damaging misconception that teasing about weight — even good-natured teasing — might “motivate” a child to get into a healthy weight range. “This study shows that that’s not only not true but that teasing might increase weight gain over time.”
While Schvey’s study is small and observational, it corroborates other research that has linked fat shaming to weight gain, something that poses serious health risks to youth. Pediatric overweight and obesity increases the odds that a child or teen will suffer from anxiety, depression, and social isolation. Obesity and overweight are also, of course, linked to health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, breathing issues, and fatty liver disease, and are also more likely to face obesity as adults. Being subjected to bullying of any nature — and being a bully, for that matter — poses its own health risks, too.
Keep in mind that this study isn’t concluding that weight-based teasing itself leads to weight gain — it was not designed to do so. It’s value, rather, is in shutting down the misconception that teasing is not constructive. Additionally, it indicates that a history of being teased or bullied for weight puts someone at an increased risk for unhealthy weight gain over time, which may suggest the need to reduce the incidence of weight-based bullying — or at the very least, the need for health officials to focus their efforts on these at-risk youth.