Kids come in different shapes, sizes and personalities! It is important to recognize, however, that there is an ongoing childhood obesity problem in this country—for many reasons. This means, unfortunately, children and adolescents with obesity struggle with teasing, bullying and social rejection because of weight stigma.

Connecticut Children’s pediatric psychologist Dr. Vanessa Laurent explains what weight stigma is, how it affects kids (and adults!) and what you can do as a parent to support your child.

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What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma is a phrase that describes the negative beliefs, attitudes and actions toward people with higher weight. Both adults and kids who struggle with weight face prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. Psychologists believe that weight stigma comes from negative, and often untrue, beliefs that people with obesity are lazy, unmotivated, unhygienic, unintelligent and unattractive.

What are some real-life examples of weight stigma in kids?

First, understand that weight stigma happens everywhere. We’ve broken it down into several different categories so you know what to look out for.

Weight Stigma in the Social Scene:

  • Name calling or verbal and physical bullying
  • Being ignored or excluded from activities
  • More likely to withdraw from peers
  • Less confidence when attempting to socialize

>Related: 6 Tips to Help Kids Deal With Peer Pressure

How Adults Encourage Weight Stigma:

  • Parents and teachers may lower their expectations of kids’ performance and success. The weight stigma can mistakenly make adults believe that kids have inferior physical, social and academic abilities.
  • Children with obesity may receive less academic support from teachers.
  • Parents may tease their children about weight, even jokingly.
  • Parents and caregivers may push dieting.

Weight Stigma and Healthcare:

  • Doctors and other medical professionals sometimes assume people with obesity are noncompliant, or aren’t willing to get necessary medical care for their wellbeing.
  • These medical professionals often spend less time getting to know or speaking with obese patients during office visits.
  • Medical equipment may not always be size-inclusive (e.g., gowns, chairs, examination tables).
  • Healthcare professionals may perceive things as worse than they actually are.
  • Medical professionals who aren’t always mindful of their word choices to describe weight can actually discourage patients to seek healthcare.

Connecticut Children’s recognizes weight stigma in the healthcare environment as a nationwide problem and has taken steps to improve the situation:

  • We have devoted resources to better understand the experience of patients with obesity.
  • We are careful with our language, always mindful to use person-first and sensitive phrasing. Every day, we work to educate our staff on this approach. 
  • We have size-appropriate furniture at Connecticut Children’s facilities. 

Weight Stigma and the Media:

  • In children’s shows and movies, characters with obesity tend to be portrayed as clumsy, lazy, and without friends.
  • Underrepresentation of people with obesity. Even though Hollywood and TV are trying to be more inclusive in their casting, we don’t see obese people too often on the screen.
Young girl poses in the pool

What are the effects of weight stigma on children?

Every child has their own degree of resilience, so only some of the signs and symptoms below may occur from experiencing weight stigma. This is because weight stigma places people at greater risk of:

  • Psychological and emotional impact
    • Depression and worsening of mood
    • Anxiety
    • Poor self-esteem
    • Body image concerns
  • Engaging in unhealthy eating habits
    • Binge eating
    • Emotional eating
    • Developing eating disorders in adulthood
  • Decreased academic performance
    • Peer-related bullying can lead to disengaging from school
    • Decreased expectations of kids from teachers can lead to poor performance
  • Greater risk of obesity
    • Low self-esteem, or less likely to believe they can become healthier
    • Less motivation for exercise and physical activity because of teasing
      • This can come with fear of being ridiculed for trying
    • Engaging in disordered eating behaviors to cope

>Related: Who to Contact When Your Child Needs Behavioral Health Support

What can I do as a parent if I think my child might be facing weight stigma?

There are many things you can do to support your child, but it all starts with you!

  • Have an open dialogue that focuses on the root causes of obesity, and reinforce that obesity is a complex medical disease.
  • Do a reality check on your personal views and attitudes about weight.
  • Use sensitive and appropriate language when discussing weight.
    • Consider how you speak about your weight and that of others in front of your child.
    • Be mindful of not making negative associations with being overweight (e.g., overweight individuals are lazy).
    • Talk to your child to learn what words they feel comfortable using when talking about weight. Ask them what they are hearing at school or on TV.
  • Seek support if you notice signs of teasing or bullying (e.g., changes in mood, social isolation, changes in grades, etc.)
    • Work with school officials to promote weight tolerance and reduce bullying at school.
    • Consider psychotherapy to help to address negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Help your child find “body positive” role models (e.g., individuals who challenge common weight-based stereotypes).
  • Place the emphasis on health rather than thinness or appearance.

>Related: From Your Couch to a 5K: Tips to Get Active and Reduce Childhood Obesity