Teasing overweight girls about their weight can cause lasting harm to their self-image and might increase their risk of eating disorders, a new study suggests.
“Weight status may be a more sensitive issue for children who are overweight or obese, and being teased about it may elicit a stronger response from them as opposed to children who are not overweight or obese,” Norma Olvera, a professor and health educator at the University of Houston, said in a university news release.
The research included 135 black and Hispanic girls about age 11 who were overweight or obese. Eighty-one percent of the girls were obese. All of them said they were unhappy about their body weight and wished they were thinner, the researchers said.
“The study focused on black and Hispanic girls because they are at a higher risk of obesity, which may increase their desire to be thinner and lead them to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors,” Olvera said. “Secondly, there is not a lot of research that explores these issues in minority girls.”
Fifty-two percent of the girls said they had been teased about their weight by other girls. Sixty percent said they had been teased by boys, and some said they had been teased by siblings, the research revealed.
The teasing seemed to trigger unhealthy eating behaviors in the girls, the researchers found. But, it’s important to note that this type of study isn’t designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship; it can only show an association between teasing and the girls’ eating behaviors.
Seventy percent of those who were teased started to cut back on or skip meals, diet or starve themselves to lose weight, the study showed. The researchers also found that 12 percent engaged in binge eating followed by forcing themselves to throw up, and 33 percent reported eating because they were upset or bored (emotional eating).
“Results from this study may guide health educators and practitioners to design interventions to teach coping strategies to these children to help them deal with peer-weight teasing,” Olvera said. “The findings also support social policies of no tolerance of weight-related teasing, particularly in school settings”
The study was published recently in the Journal of Early Adolescence.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about childhood overweight and obesity.