Conference Coverage

Weight bias against teens: Understand it and combat it



NEW ORLEANS – Weight-based harassment and bias is extremely prevalent throughout society and in doctors’ own offices, so be aware of ways to address it and support your patients regardless of weight.

Rebecca Puhl, PhD, a deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, Hartford, said that weight-based discrimination can occur whatever a person’s size or body shape, but it’s most often targeted at youth who are overweight or obese.

These children and teens commonly face teasing, harassment, cyberbullying, physical aggression, and social bullying from peers, coaches, teachers, and even parents, Dr. Puhl told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Common beliefs about overweight people – that they have little self discipline or poor eating and activity habits – only perpetuate stereotypes, she said. Common stereotypes are that people with obesity are noncompliant, lazy, sloppy, unsuccessful, unintelligent, dishonest, and awkward.

And health professionals of every type have been found to harbor these biases. In one study of more than 4,000 first-year medical students, well over half the respondents revealed explicit (74%) and implicit (67%) weight bias (Obesity. 2014 Apr;22[4]:1201-8). The study also found that explicit weight bias was stronger than explicit bias against blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ people, and poor people.

Know the effects of weight stigma

Far from a minor issue, the discrimination that begins in childhood against those who are overweight can have a long-lasting impact on their future prospects and mental health. Being overweight is overwhelmingly cited as the most common reason for bullying (Pediatr Obes. 2016 Aug;11[4]:241-50). Dr. Puhl described to attendees how weight bias shifts throughout a lifetime, beginning as early as preschool. In childhood, the stereotypes about being overweight worsen, and the teasing and bullying increase. By adolescence, this treatment affects teens’ psychological, social, and physical well-being. It then translates in adulthood into reduced opportunities in employment and education, and poorer access and treatment in health care.

The mental distress caused by weight bullying often takes the form of depression, anxiety, and substance use, Dr. Puhl said, and children’s academic success can be hampered by bullying about their weight. One study found a higher risk of poor grades and school avoidance with each additional teasing incident (J Youth Adolesc. 2012 Jan;41[1]:27-40).

Weight stigma also can contribute to more weight gain, obesity, and lower physical activity levels. Maladaptive eating behaviors can result from weight stigmatization as well: binge eating, emotional eating, increased consumption in general, and other eating disorders. Severe binge eating is 80% more likely among teens who are bullied about their weight, Dr. Puhl said, and the risk increases with increased frequency and types of bullying.

Children who are teased about their weight often become less willing to engage in physical activity, she noted. They may skip gym class, feel less competent about physical activity, and end up enjoying sports participation less.

Further, sexual- and gender-minority youth report high rates of weight-related teasing from friends and family regardless of their body mass index (BMI) percentile, Dr. Puhl emphasized. Researchers have found bullying about weight in this population linked to dieting, difficulty sleeping, high stress levels, binge drinking, smoking, and marijuana use.


Next Article: