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Calling a Girl Fat Can Cause Lasting Harm

The finding of a study by two researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and University of California Santa Barbara, showed the effect on girls who were called fat by teachers, family members or even friends. The study examined data on 2,036 girls participating in the long-term study. At age 14, the girls reported whether they had been told they were “too fat” by their parents, siblings, best girlfriends, boys they liked best, any other teens or their teachers.

At ages 14 and 19, the girls completed a questionnaire that was designed to assess unhealthy weight control behaviors, like bulimic tendencies, striving for thinness and dissatisfaction with their body. At both these evaluations, girls reported whether in the past 30 days they had engaged in unhealthy behaviors such as not eating, vomiting, taking diet pills or using laxatives. At age 19, they were also asked whether they used smoking and skipping meals as weight control methods. Compared with girls who didn’t report being labeled fat at age 14, researchers found, girls who were weight labeled at 14 had higher scores at age 19 on the eating disorders inventory.

Usually when an individual is part of a stigmatized group, the persons closest to them tend to be their allies, related Janet Tomiyama, Ph.D., senior author of the study. She went on to say where weight is concerned, the opposite occurs. Those closest to a person can be the ones who are the most critical, whereas normally they’d be their source of support. One particularly noticeable line in the data showed the risk for obesity was higher if someone in the family told the girls they were “too fat,” as opposed to a non-family member, like teacher or classmate.

According to Andrew Getzfeld, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of psychology at NYU, if you believe in something, it’s more likely to happen. Labeling a child is usually not going to amount to much good. He said children don’t have filters like adults have. They can’t process things like adults can. With adolescents being very impressionable, they tend to take something one says to heart. The bottom line is that families and friends and have to be careful what we say to girls about weight, because words can hurt.

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