If You Really Care About Girls, Stop Saying They’re ‘Too Fat’! It Can Lead to Obesity

New research suggests weight labeling doesn’t just embarrass girls; it can lead to their becoming obese.

(Photo: Getty Images)

May 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

“You don’t want to be the fattest girl at fat camp this summer. Do you?”

That’s just one of the barbs flung by the sharp-tongued character Celia Hodes at her tween daughter in the dark television comedy Weeds. Hodes regularly commented with neurotic glee on her 11-year-old daughter Isabelle’s body and weight, calling her “Isa-belly.”

The mom from hell that everyone loves to hate: The ongoing bit drew plenty of snickers, but in real life, the long-term impact of weight labeling is nothing to laugh about.

Girls who are told they’re “too fat” by both family and non–family members are more likely to become obese years later, according to a new University of California, Los Angeles, study published as a research letter this week in JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association.

“A lot of people sort of assume that stigmatizing weight or weight teasing will motivate weight loss. Instead, it more or less backfires and demoralizes,” said graduate student Jeffrey Hunger, coauthor of the study, from UCLA’s Dieting, Stress and Health Lab.

UCLA researchers followed more than 2,000 girls from age 10 until they turned 19, measuring their weight and height at the beginning and end of the study.

The girls were asked, “Have any of these people told you that you were too fat?” They were to choose from a list that included their father, mother, brother, sister, best friend, and teacher. Girls labeled “too fat” by family members at age 10 were 1.62 times more likely to be obese, according to their body mass index, at age 19. Girls labeled “too fat” by non–family members by age 10 were 1.40 times more likely to be obese based on BMI at age 19.

Slightly more than 57 percent of the participants said they were labeled “too fat.” Overeating and psychological stress due to being weight labeled early on might have contributed to this weight gain, according the study.

“The roots of obesity are complex, with behavioral factors such as diet and exercise, and it is also linked to genetic makeup, which is usually overlooked,” noted Hunger. “Obese individuals are stereotyped as having a lack of self-control, of being lazy. We know this is not necessarily the case. I think what’s important is a shift away from weight and more of a focus on health. We need to recognize and appreciate body diversity, that everybody’s body is different, and ‘fat’ is not an automatic indicator of bad health. It’s more about your fitness than your fatness.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third, or 34.9 percent, of adults and 17 percent of kids in the United States are obese, increasing their chance of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. In 2008, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion.

Yet there’s a delicate balance between concern over health and the fact that girls and women are bombarded with airbrushed images of svelte beauty in magazines and on websites on a daily basis, inducing a tidal wave of self-criticism. According to a new national survey on body image by The Today Show and AOL, 60 percent of adult women have negative thoughts about their appearance at least once a week. That number rockets to 78 percent for teen girls.

Experts agree that the key to talking to girls about their bodies and health is not focusing on “fat” but on another f-word: “fun.” Family members being healthy and active helps too, said Judy Norsigian, executive director of the nonprofit organization Our Bodies Ourselves, whose women’s health tome by the same name has been translated into 25 languages since it was published in 1970.

“Positive reinforcement is better than shaming,” said Norsigian. “Your body is your temple. The focus should be about having good fats, not bad fats, in our diets, more omega-3 fatty acids, more fresh fruits and vegetables. It should be about finding what you like to eat that’s healthy and having fun eating. Your body weight will end up where it is meant to be.”