Seeking Sources of Body Shaming

An Italian study found that 1 in 4 students was affected.

Body shaming, weight bias, and bullying about weight are being examined much more closely, and the link to developing disordered eating has received new attention. However, some have noted the lack of a clear definition of body shaming. Shaming can range all the way from unconscious but often negative comments about a person’s body, seemingly in a helpful way, from parents or even medical professionals (“losing weight will help you avoid developing diabetes”) to harsh anonymous online comments about body shape or weight.

Dr. Silvia Cerolina and colleagues from the Department of Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, sought to estimate the extent that high school students had body shaming experiences with peers and family members. They then compared the degree to which the experiences were associated with eating disorder symptoms, current body mass index, and body dissatisfaction. They also hypothesized that the effects of body shaming on the student’s sense of well-being might well be mediated by the individual’s own weight bias (Front Psychol. 15:1356647. doi:0.3389/fpsyg.2024.1356647).

Evaluating the students. From 2022 to 2023, the authors evaluated 919 high school students (median age: 15.97 years) from 10 secondary schools in urban Rome. Most of the classes were visited by at least one of the authors, who outlined the study and the online tests involved and collected parental consent forms. The students then completed a battery of tests during the timetable of the school lessons. The online battery of self-report questionnaires assessed body shaming, internalized and public weight bias, eating disorder symptoms, body dissatisfaction and demographic information.

Two yes/no questions were used to assess weight-related body shaming experiences from peers (“Have you ever been teased or made fun because of your weight by peers?”) and from family members (For example, “Have you ever been teased or made fun because of your weight by a family member?”)

Probing attitudes about body shaming

The Italian version of the Attitudes toward Obese Persons (ATOP) questionnaire was used to assess perceptions and attitudes about people with obesity. One of the statements, for example, was “Obese workers cannot be as successful as other workers.” Another scale, The Disordered Eating Questionnaire (DEQ), was used to calculate a global score of eating disorders symptoms, such as restrictive eating, binge eating and purging behaviors, ruminating, and worries about weight and body shape.

The Weight Bias Internalization Scale (WBIS) was administered to assess the internalization of WB and negative stereotypes about overweight and obesity (Curr Psychol. 2017. 36:242). The WBIS was used to assess the student’s internalization of WB and negative stereotypes about overweight and obesity. The score was electronically available only if participants previously responded “Yes” to an item assessing whether they perceived themselves as overweight. Higher scores indicated greater internalization of weight-related stigma. Examples included: “I do not feel that I deserve to have a fulfilling social life, as long as I’m overweight” and “My weight is a major way that I judge my value as a person.”

The Silhouette Rating Scale (SRS) is a pictorial tool depicting a series of nine female or male silhouettes varying in body dimensions (width of body parts) and shape. Two items assess current and ideal body size evaluation, allowing the student to estimate a score of body size dissatisfaction obtained from the discrepancy between them (ideal minus current body shape and size).

The Disordered Eating Questionnaire (DEQ) was used to assess disordered eating-related behaviors and attitudes. This 24-item scale helps calculate a global score of eating disorder symptoms such as restrictive eating, and binge-eating and purging behaviors, willingness to lose weight, ruminating, and worrying about weight and body shape, and using intense physical exercise to lose weight, for example.

The extent of weight-related body shaming

One in four students reported experiencing weight-related body shaming by peers (25.1%) or by family members (25.0%), and 37% reported having at least one body shaming experience during their lifetime. Female students had higher scores of eating disorder symptoms and greater dissatisfaction with body size than did males.

The only exception was in the public Weight Bias Internalization Scale (WBIS) score, which was higher in males than in females. The WBIS is a self-report questionnaire that measures the degree to which overweight and obese persons internalize negative stereotypes and their own statements about their weight. The authors also reported decreased protein lipid intake levels. Female students reported also twice the risk of having at least one lifetime weight-related body shaming experience compared to male students, which is probably related to sociocultural factors, such as the pervasive influence of the “thin ideal.”

Nearly 40% of participants reported clinically significant eating disorder symptoms. The authors reported that previous Italian studies signaled an alarming growing prevalence rate of 28%, possibly relating to a post-COVID pandemic effect. According to the authors, the pandemic deeply disrupted daily life, and created a global effect of increasing the risk of eating disorders.

The finding that public weight shaming seems to produce different effects than internalized weight bias and is not associated with body shaming and eating disorder symptoms in overweight teens might seem to be controversial. However, with further examination, this might make sense, considering that this group (students who report being overweight) may have internalized weight bias, and may apply negative stereotypes and attitudes to themselves. They may also have developed a greater sensitivity toward other people, resulting in less negative attitudes toward obesity and thus do not associate this with body shaming experiences and eating disorders symptoms.

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