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Does Calling You Fat Make You Fat?


sharma-obesity-discriminationOne of the most troubling aspects of weight-bias and discrimination is that it has strong negative emotional and physical consequences for the individuals, who perceive these negative attitudes.

Now a study suggests that simply being labeled “fat” in childhood may be a strong predictor of obesity ten year later.

Thus, according to a longitudinal study by Jeffrey Hunger and Janet Tomiyama, published in JAMA Pediatrics, girls who reported being called “fat” at age 10 were about 60% more likely to have a BMI in the obese range at age 19.

Kids in this study were considered as “labeled”, if they responded “yes” to the question, whether they had ever been called fat by their father, mother, brothers, sister, best girl friend, boy you like best, any other girl, any other boy, or teacher.

Interestingly enough, this finding is not explained by the possibility that the labelled girls were indeed heavier – there was in fact no difference in BMI at age 10 between the kids who responded “yes” and those, who did not.

Indeed, the findings remained robust even after correction for various demographic confounders.

These findings are concerning, as they suggest that simply being called “fat” as a kid, may put you on a track to weight gain irrespective of whether or not you actually carry excess weight to start with.

I am sure many of my readers will relate to these findings and can tell their own stories of how being “labelled” fat may have influenced their weight journeys.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

ResearchBlogging.orgHunger JM, & Tomiyama AJ (2014). Weight Labeling and Obesity: A Longitudinal Study of Girls Aged 10 to 19 Years. JAMA pediatrics PMID: 24781349

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4 Comments

  1. This breaks my heart.

    Because, yes, that’s me. I became fat at age 8, in a dressing room, trying on a desperately wanted Brownie uniform. I wasn’t fat at the time, maybe slightly larger than average, but not fat, and not quite even what would have been called chubby. The salesperson, a guy, walked in as I was looking at myself in the mirror, my mother was there. He said “she’s too fat for that one, try this”, and I remember the pain and the humiliation as if it were yesterday. I’ve hated my body since that day.

    That moment shaped my life, changed me forever. Self-hatred, plenty of that. Self-esteem? Sorry, no, not here. I don’t recall ever being able to enjoy food the same way again, it became shameful to eat, to want to eat.

    My body itself didn’t start gaining excessive weight until years later, but that day was the day I became fat, and a war was started between me and my body, one that forty years later, I’m still fighting, a war that has almost killed me twice over (bulimia and coming very close to a serious suicide attempt), that has taken much from me, left me endlessly using self esteem garnered in other ways to backfill the hole constantly dug by the battles against my weight that I, at one point or another, lose.

    It seems some days that nothing else matters, that I will be defined by my failure to maintain a thin body. Three wonderful kids? That’s nice, but you’re fat. A fabulous spouse who loves and respects me? Awesome. A shame you’re fat. Two MS degrees? They give those to fat people? A 200 mile bike ride, any pride erased by the jerk at the finish line who sneered that some people really shouldn’t wear spandex.

    I really do think that something broke in me, that day, being called fat. Or maybe not in me, but me. I broke in two. Me, the thinking me, and that evil body of mine, that I’ve fought, and hated and battled ever since.

    Small words can have big effects.

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  2. Ridiculous. I would bet every last dime that the reason children who are called “fat” are likely to be obese later in life because they come from an environment of overeating, eating the wrong foods, lack of activity, unhealthy role models (parents whose eating and exercise habits are foisted upon their offspring), and the general acceptance of overweight/obese now appearing “normal” because so many people ARE obese. Please don’t tell me you believe that if you take a group of active, slim, 65-pound ten year old girls and have someone point at them once a day and say “you are fat!” that they will somehow “become” fat. If you did the study in reverse and told a group of overweight, sendentary, 100-pound ten year old girls and told them every day, “You are slim!” they’d “become” thin? Again, ridiculous. Stop enabling. Personal responsibility should not be a dirty word.

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  3. Yeah, we all know that if you take a bunch of kids and keep failing them on tests and telling them that they are lazy underachievers, it will make them all work harder in school and get into prestigious universities, right? (Sarcasm alert).

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