Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2003 Volume 13, Number 3
©2002 Gürze Books
One of the many challenging issues adolescents must face is teasing about their weight. Teens may be especially sensitive to weight-related teasing since identity formation is a major developmental task of adolescence, and body image and self-esteem are closely woven together
In one study in which 50 overweight girls were interviewed about weight-related experiences, all but two had experienced the stigma of name-calling and teasing (Int J Eat Disord 1996; 19:193). Numerous studies have also shown that teenage girls who are teased about their weight are more likely to develop psychological, body image, or eating disturbances. Results of a recent study underscore how common weight teasing is and its potentially harmful effects (Int J Obesity 2002; 26:123).
Project EAT: nearly 25% had been teased about weight
In a study of 4746 teens from 31 public schools and high schools from urban St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN (Project EAT), nearly a fourth of the students had been teased about their weight at least a few times a year. Although boys and girls reported being teased, girls were teased more often. Very overweight girls were teased at a higher rate—63.2% had been teased by peers and 47.2% by family members. Very overweight girls were also at the highest risk of being teased by family members. And, it wasn’t just the overweight girls who were teased—48.8% of underweight girls had also been teased about their weight.
Among the boys, very overweight boys were most likely to be teased about their weight by both peers and family members, while underweight boys were more likely to be teased by peers but not by family members. Native American boys and Asian-American boys (39% and 35%, respectively) were more frequently teased about their weight by family members than were Caucasian boys (20.9%).
Who was bothered by teasing?
Very overweight girls were most bothered by teasing by family and peers. A high percentage of underweight girls also reported being bothered by weight teasing by their family members. High percentages of girls in all body mass index categories reported that they were bothered by weight teasing by peers and family members; teasing bothered considerably fewer overweight boys. In contrast to the girls, the teasing, from any source bothered few of the underweight boys.
Did teasing matter?
Teasing about weight had a notable effect on students and an effect on unhealthy eating behaviors. Gender differences were noted: girls are teased more than boys and girls report being bothered more by teasing than boys are. Also non-overweight girls report higher levels of teasing than non-overweight boys do.
Significantly higher percentages of overweight girls and boys who were teased about weight engaged in unhealthy weight control and binge eating behaviors, compared to overweight girls and boys who were not teased about their weight. Although not addressed in this study, such behaviors lead to more severe eating disturbances later on.
What can be done about weight teasing?
The authors suggest that schools need to have clear-cut policies against weight teasing. Just as great strides have been made within educational and employment institutions in regard to tolerance for gender and racial differences, the authors call for similar steps to prevent weight-related discrimination. Educational intervention might be implemented with programs for staff and students in which participants learn about the complex etiology of obesity, are made aware of their own attitudes and behaviors toward persons of different sizes, and learn about the possible harmful effects of teasing others about weight. The high prevalence of teasing by family members also indicates a need for parental or family interventions in which family members learn about weight-related mistreatment and its potentially harmful effects.