A recent study by researchers at UCLA found that if girls had been called “too fat” by someone by age 10, they were more likely to be “obese” at age 19, and that the more people who told her she was “too fat” the more her chances of being “obese” increased. The study included controlled for income, race, childhood weight and puberty age.
Full disclosure: I reference A. Janet Tomiyama’s work often – including her work with Traci Mann – I have tremendous respect for both of them as researchers doing great solid work in an area that is really controversial, and I’ve even briefly corresponded with Janet about a piece I wrote about her work for iVillage.
The study isn’t really what I want to talk about though, what I want to talk about are the reactions to this study and the hypotheses that people are drawing from it. As I read articles about this around the internet the most common idea I’ve heard is that when girls are called “too fat” they probably resort to “emotional overeating” or “stress eating” and that leads to weight gain.
I’d like to suggest another hypothesis. I think when girls are called “too fat” they resort to dieting (often at the recommendation of authority figures including their parents, teachers, doctors etc.) and that leads to them to gain weight.
Research from the University of Minnesota found that none of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss, but they did predict significant weight gain.
Earlier research by Tomiyama and Mann found that most adults regain the weight they lost and many (from one to two thirds) gain back more than they lost.
We know that the most likely outcome of intentional weight loss interventions (whether they are called a diet, a lifestyle change etc.) in adults is weight regain – often more than what the person lost – and we have no reason to believe that dieting works better for kids.
So maybe the issue isn’t so much about trying to keep girls from “emotional overeating” (a questionable concept which is a subject for a whole other blog) but trying to keep them from dieting – which is to say trying to keep them from feeding their bodies less food than they need to survive (while those bodies are still developing, let’s not forget) in an effort to manipulate their body size.
I’ve also seen a lot of people using this as support for the idea of banning the use of the world “fat”. I vehemently disagree with this strategy. The issue I see here is that, however well meaning, saying that we shouldn’t call kids fat suggests that being fat is such a terrible thing that we shouldn’t utter the word out loud. But fat kids actually exist, so making fat kids into Voldemort by making fat the “physical descriptor that must not be named” actually further shames and stigmatizes them, whether we call them fat or not.
Girls (and kids of all gender identities) deserve to live in a world that encourages them to love and appreciate their bodies and gives them the information and access to make choices about caring for those bodies, and I think a great first step would be to end body shaming and negative body talk and celebrate body diversity.
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