Fat is not a four-letter word; and yet, this single monosyllabic word has the power to devastate people’s lives. In fact, most females can’t think of anything worse than being called fat. Years ago, research studies confirmed that young girls would rather be called stupid than fat, while adolescents would prefer to receive a cancer diagnosis than be fat.
We are well aware of the immediate pain and negative consequences associated with that one word. But, only now do we have research that illustrates the more long-term impact on teens who were once labeled fat by family or friends.
A U.S. research team examined information from the NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) Growth and Health Study. They looked at data on 2,036 girls participating in that specific long-term study.
At age 14, the girls reported whether or not they had been told they were “too fat” by important people in their lives such as parents, siblings, peers, or teachers. At ages 14 and 19, the girls also completed a questionnaire designed to assess unhealthy weight control behaviors, bulimic tendencies, focus on thinness and body dissatisfaction.
At both evaluations, girls reported whether in the past month they had engaged in unhealthy behaviors such as not eating, vomiting, taking diet pills or using laxatives. At age 19, they were also asked about smoking and skipping meals as weight control methods.
Researchers discovered that compared with girls who did not report having been labeled fat at age 14, those who were weight labeled at 14 had higher scores at age 19 on the eating disorders inventory.
Two other key results were noted. Weight labeling by a family member was a stronger predictor of later disordered eating than criticism from others. Additionally, the weight stigma felt by these young women had absolutely nothing to do with their actual body size.
Certainly, this study confirmed what we have seen in our eating disordered residents for years. Being labeled and judged on weight by those important in a female’s life is a strong contributor to an eating disorder.
At Timberline Knolls, we adhere to the health at all sizes philosophy. Emotional health must be a priority, regardless of an individual’s shape or appearance.
We know parents can play such a vital role in the development of positive body image and self-esteem in their children. When discussing health, weight should not even enter the conversation. Similarly, negative “fat talk,” chronic dieting, and body shaming can be profoundly harmful.
If rigid expectations of what a child should look like are promoted, the consequences may be long-term emotional struggles such as the pain inherent to an eating disorder. Moreover, letting go of the expectation that “healthy = thin” translates into freedom for every human being to pursue a life of overall health and well-being.