There's nothing nice about labeling a preteen girl as fat. Perhaps it's done out of meanness by a classmate. Or maybe the name-calling is done by a well-intentioned but woefully misdirected family member trying to guide the young 'un into a life of exercise and careful dietary regimes.
Regardless of the motivation, new research suggests that the label isn't just cruel—it can become prophecy. And the unwitting prophesying is more prescient when it's inflicted by a family member.
"A growing body of research shows that weight stigma is associated with increased psychological and physiological stress, exercise avoidance, and even increased eating."
University of California researchers pored over data collected during the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Growth and Health Study. In this study, the institute tracked a variety of health and other factors in a cohort of more than 2,000 young women from 1985, when they were aged nine or 10, until they turned 18 or 19. One of the questions asked of the preteen girls was whether they had ever been called "fat"—and who had called them that. Answering "yes" meant the girl had been "labeled" as fat.
The Californian researchers found that girls labeled as fat were more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) nine years later that fell within the clinical definition of obesity.
"Even when you statistically remove the the effect of baseline BMI, there's still an association between baseline weight labeling and odds of having an obese BMI at age 19," says University of California-Santa Barbara social psychology doctoral candidate Jeff Hunger, one of the authors of the research published this week in JAMA Pediatrics. "So it's not simply the case that heavy girls are being labeled at age 10 and remain heavy at age 19. Labeling seems to be an independent predictor of weight status nearly a decade later."
The girls were more likely to pack on unhealthy numbers of pounds during the study if they were labeled as fat by a family member, rather than by one of their peers or by a teacher.
"Many people, including some scholars, believe that stigmatizing overweight individuals is justified because it will motivate behavior change and engender weight loss," Hunger says. "Yet a growing body of research shows that weight stigma is associated with increased psychological and physiological stress, exercise avoidance, and even increased eating. Together, these factors likely contribute to weight gain as well as other negative health conditions often associated with being overweight."