Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Weight Stigmatization in Youth

Children and adolescents who are overweight are vulnerable to multiple forms of weight bias: physical bullying, verbal teasing (name calling or derogatory remarks), and relational victimization (being ignored, excluded from activities, or being targeted for rumors). Many young people face these forms of stigma every day, especially in school. Among boys and girls with the highest level of obesity, about 60 percent report being victimized by their peers.

Overweight young people face weight bias not just from other children but from teachers and even parents. Television, movies, and magazines reinforce negative attitudes about body weight and perpetuate weight bias.

Together, all these sources of bias have a major impact on young people’s psychological, social, and physical health. Studies show that overweight and obese children who are victimized because of their weight are more vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem, and poor body image. Some research has also demonstrated that obese youth who are victimized by their peers are two to three times more likely to engage in suicidal thoughts and behaviors than overweight children who are not victimized. Weight bias also limits children’s social relationships, making them more likely to be socially isolated and less likely to be chosen as friends.

On the physical level, several studies have demonstrated that weight bias leads to unhealthy eating behaviors. For example, overweight girls and boys who are targets of frequent weight teasing are more likely to engage in binge eating or unhealthy weight control measures. Other evidence suggests that weight stigma discourages obese children from engaging in physical activity and physical education classes.