If you’re the mother of young children, especially little girls, then you probably know that children even as young as 6 years old are looking in the mirror and judging their bodies. It’s not uncommon to hear comments like, “I have fat thighs” or “My tummy is really big” or to have children (who have weight issues) ask why their body looks “bad” compared to their friends. A study from April 2017 reveals the link between obesity and psychopathology, and confirms that kids as young as 6 are worried about body image, and kids as young as 3 are being stigmatized because of their weight.
Obesity continues to be a major public health issue worldwide. Studies have found that as obesity rates rise, so does weight discrimination. Experts know that obesity is a complex chronic disease with many different interactions between a number of identifiable factors including genetics, environment, food availability, feeding patterns, biology, levels of activity, and influences from society.
Recently, over 90 direct and indirect variables that influence obesity have been identified. Unique to obesity is the fact that “we wear the disease” meaning it’s a disease obvious to the naked eye.
So it’s not surprising that in all age groups, there’s a link between obesity and psychopathology (the scientific study of mental disorders). Being large in a society that values a thin appearance is associated with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Even very young children will single out kids who look different and “being fat,” puts a target on their backs.
This particular study looked at how weight stigma and the feelings of discrimination add to the burden of an obese individual at any age, and increase the chance of developing short-term or chronic depression, anxiety, and other mental pathology. The findings support the position of many obesity experts who feel that treating obesity must include “treatment of the whole person,” and not just diet and exercise programs. Mental and emotional support is necessary for all age groups, because of stigmatization, discrimination, and other mental health challenges.
Obesity is associated with poor body image, low self-esteem, being ostracized and excluded, having less optimal quality of life. Long-term obesity is associated with substance abuse, the risk of self-harm, and even suicide. Having ongoing stress or anxiety (co-morbid with obesity) can lead to persistent low level chronic inflammation and elevated health risks. If you feel miserable about yourself because of the way you are being treated in society, you will likely continue to suffer from chronic anxiety and depression, and perpetuate your unhealthy feeding patterns as a coping mechanism. Even young children do this.
The researchers also found that even among those individuals who lost weight, feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression can persist. One explanation is that despite the successful weight loss, the reasons or issues that fueled obesity are still present. There’s also a phenomenon where you may still see your “old, large self,” in the mirror. How you view your body after weight loss can be skewed by persistent mental health issues. A 2010 study, Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health, found that among professional women, weight was more likely a cause for stigmatizing than race.
Typical stereotypes of obese people at any age include the notion that they are lazy or lack willpower. Someone who feels this way about large individuals may use behaviors like name-calling, physical bullying, socially exclude the person, or start rumors. In the professional community, there may be obvious discrimination – not hiring someone for a job due to their size. Students may be relegated to the back of the classroom, told they are stupid or slow, ostracized during recess or sports time. Imagine the impact if this starts at age 3.
Children mimic behaviors that they see. Many kids learn behaviors at child daycare centers and from older siblings and the media. One has to assume that being unhappy with their body image or learning to dislike or bully kids who are different from them, is largely being learned from the behavior of adults and older kids.
What’s worrisome is that based on the research in this latest study, feeling stigma at the age of 3 will likely fuel anxiety and depression very early in life. Because long-term successful weight loss rates are quite low, that also means that those mental health issues will likely persist and complicate the health of these young children as they mature into adulthood.
Parents, pediatricians, and schools need to be aware of their own attitudes regarding obesity. They also need to identify when very young children are preoccupied with body image or weight and help them to navigate those feelings in healthy, positive ways.
Parents in particular need to censor negative comments about their own bodies, because children are listening and absorbing those messages. Mothers and fathers who are dieting need to be especially vigilant and discuss weight loss from a health perspective. Frame food and exercise conversations around themes like “better health, better school performance, having more energy or improved sports performance.” Vanity-driven comments will color a young child’s attitude about their body and kids “who look different.”
Obesity treatment plans, even for the very young, need to address weight and mental health issues. A child who has a healthy attitude about weight, and learns self-love and empathy, will be less likely to grow up to have low self-esteem or to bully others.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”