A new study has found that discrimination against and bullying of overweight sixth graders can lead to emotional problems by the end of the eighth grade.
Many anti-obesity programs, including the ones that are school-based, focus on personal responsibility for weight management, leading to cultural ideas that harm overweight people.
Jaana Juvonen, Ph.D., lead author of the study and professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said:
"The widespread misconception is that anyone who is heavy is likely to feel distressed because of their weight, yet our findings suggest that demeaning peer responses to weight is the primary social factor underlying these emotional problems."
The study suggests that to reduce these emotional problems among those targeted by both anti-obesity programs and bullies schools and programs need to target the bullies.
"Despite good intentions, many health programs may nonetheless be increasing the prevalence of weight stigma, inasmuch as overweight or obese youth are blamed for their looks. Our findings suggest that school-based programs aiming to reduce obesity should not only promote healthy behaviors, but also increase weight acceptance and body-shape diversity."
The data for the study came from 5,128 youths of 26 middle schools in California. Data on their demographics and Body Mass Index were collected in the spring of sixth grade. Emotional health was assessed in sixth grade and then in eighth grade, which was then compared. Students were asked about their weight discrimination experiences during the seventh grade to see how it affected emotional health during middle school. Researchers looked at the effects of BMI and weight-based discrimination in seventh grade on the eighth-grade outcomes in addition to the indirect effect of sixth-grade BMI on eighth-grade emotional adjustment.
A third of the youths reported at least one weight-related discriminatory experience by seventh grade.
By eighth grade, girls reported higher levels of loneliness as well as somatic symptoms of anxiety and depression like headaches, fatigue, stomach aches, nausea, and poor appetite.
The study, entitled "Emotional Implications of Weight Stigma across Middle School: The Role of Weight-Based Peer Discrimination," was published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (JCCAP), the official journal of the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP), on Sept 12. It was authored by Jaana Juvonen, Leah M. Lessard, Hannah L. Schachter, and Luisana Suchilt.
The SCCAP is an organization that leads the advancement and practice of evidence-based therapies based on psychological science. It's a section of the American Psychological Association, and its members include almost 3,000 clinical child and adolescent psychologists and other mental health professionals.
Their journal publishes papers about the development and evaluation of assessment and intervention techniques for use with children and adolescents, the development and maintenance of clinical child and adolescent problems, cross-cultural and sociodemographic issues that deal with clinical child and adolescent psychology, or training and professional practice in clinical child and adolescent psychology, as well as child advocacy.
The full text is available online.