Shaming children about their weight can lead to isolation, weight gain and binge eating, according to new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
One-third of American children are overweight or obese and the new AAP policy seeks to focus on the stigma of being overweight and language associated with it.
The new policy says that while there are avenues for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, there isn’t enough focus on how obesity — and how we talk about it — affects people socially and emotionally.
People who are overweight or obese face stereotypes that they are lazy or undisciplined, leading to prejudice, social rejection and unfair treatment and discrimination. The policy says that children, in particular, weight stigma is expressed in victimization, teasing and bullying. Not just in peers either, according to the policy, 37% of teens attending weight-loss camp reported being teased or bullied about their weight by their parents.
The authors of the policy Stephen J. Pont and Rebecca Puhl, note in a statement that both families and medical professionals often use negative language with overweight or obese people because they think stigma and shame will motivate them to lose weight. In fact, the opposite is true, the authors say.
“Rather than motivate positive change, this stigma contributes to behaviors such as binge eating, social isolation, avoidance of health care services, decreased physical activity and increased weight gain, which worsen obesity and create additional barriers to healthy behavior change,” Pont and Puhl said in an AAP statement.
The policy features recommendations that will help families and doctors to be aware of the negative effects of weight stigma.
Terms like “obese,” “extremely obese,” “fat” or “weight problem” induce feelings of sadness, embarrassment and shame when used by parents. Instead, Pont and Puhl say, changing language when addressing overweight and obese children can help reduce the stigma. Using “people first” phrases like “a child with obesity” rather than “an obese child” can reduce the shame.
The AAP also recommends clinicians use terms like “unhealthy weight” and “very unhealthy weight” when speaking with family and patients. Physical accommodations like larger chairs can encourage a welcoming, non-stigmatizing environment. They also encourage advocacy for “responsible and respectful portrayal of individuals with obesity in the media.”