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Weight bias and children

Weight bias is a social and emotional consequence if childhood obesity.

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and while most are familiar with the physical health concerns of obesity, people are often less aware of the social and emotional complications of childhood obesity which are just as concerning. Weight bias is one of those complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 1 in 3 children are either overweight or obese and are at risk for weight bias.

Weight bias refers to negative attitude, beliefs and discrimination directed towards overweight or obese children and adolescents. These attitudes and beliefs play out, on a daily basis, in the form of teasing, bullying and through exclusion from activities. Research on this topic has shown that negative attitudes toward overweight and obese children can begin as early as preschool. Weight bias negatively impacts physical health and could actually reinforce behaviors that contribute to obesity, such as binge-eating and avoidance of physical activity.

According to The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, a child’s social-emotional well-being suffers in the following ways as a result of weight bias:

  • Depression
  • Social isolation and discrimination – peers hold a negative attitude toward overweight classmates
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Poor body image
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor performance in school

Warning signs that your child may be a target of weight bias:

  • Is being teased by peers and/or family members
  • Avoids talking about their weight and is very sensitive when it is brought up
  • Reluctance or refusal to participate in school and/or physical activities
  • Experiences many “sick days” during the school year
  • Self-conscious about appearance
  • Sad or depressed
  • Lack of friends
  • Begins to bully other people – kids who are bullied or teased might fight back by bullying others

If your child shows any of these signs it may or may not be due to weight bias. Whatever the reason, it’s important to follow up with your child. Talking about weight bias can be difficult. If you aren’t sure where to start, talk with a counselor or therapist who specializes in weight issues and children.      

Body weight is now one of the most common reasons youth are bullied, however, victimization of overweight youth continues to be overlooked in media, research and policy discussions. According to a recent Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity survey, “41 percent of high school students perceived body weight as the primary reason for teasing and bullying (followed by 38 percent for sexual orientation). In fact, more than three-quarters of the students surveyed reported seeing overweight students being made fun of, called names, teased in a mean way or teased during physical activity at school.”

This may not just be peers teasing and bullying, many adults are guilty of weight bias.

In her book, "Your Child’s Weight Helping Without Harming Birth through Adolescence," Ellyn Satter states that weight criticism backfires, it actually makes children less active, not more. When children are criticized they see their bodies as less capable. Add to this, self-consciousness and embarrassment about their bodies and children are likely to hold back on moving. 

Parents and other adults in a child’s life, need to be aware of what they may be saying. “Just teasing” a child about their weight can be destructive. Children need support. To learn more about weight bias and what parents can do visit The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Michigan State University Extension offers nutrition information and access to programming and articles on this topic.  

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