Study suggests labeling girls ‘fat’ causes later female obesity

By ANNE LIU ’17

Sports Editor

A recent study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics followed 2,400 ten-year-old girls for nearly a decade. Those who had reported a parent or teacher previously labeling them as overweight were 66 percent more likely to become overweight by the end of the study.

Students like Grace Wagner ’17 were disappointed after hearing this.

“I decided to come to Wellesley especially because it promotes so much openness. For example, in my Dower common room, there is a sticky-note on the scale that reminds everyone ‘your weight is just a number,’” Wagner said. “It would be really nice if the world outside of Wellesley was just as inclusive and accepting.”

In the study “Weight Labeling and Obesity: A Longitudinal Study of Girls Aged 10 to 19 Years,” researchers acknowledged that finding a causal relationship between childhood labels of obesity and later obesity were unrealistic. Instead, researchers Jeffrey Hunger from the University of California in Santa Barbara and Janet Tomiyama from the University of California in Los Angeles found 1,213 girls who self-identified as black and 1,166 girls who self-identified as white for their survey. After identifying their participants, researchers asked a series of questions relating to whether their relatives, friends or teachers had previously labeled them as obese. In addition, families were asked to state their socio-economic backgrounds.

Although differences were small, results showed that black girls were more likely to be labeled as obese, and the girls with a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) who said ‘yes’ to questions posed 10 years prior were 1.66 times more likely to have a BMI that labeled them as obese later. Many factors taken into account relied on socio-economic backgrounds and widely spread bias on the results.

“Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained. That means it’s not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese,” Tomiyama said.

 Researchers discussed possible reasons behind the self-fulfilling prophecy. “Being labeled as too fat may lead people to worry about personally experiencing the stigma and discrimination faced by overweight individuals, and recent research suggests that experiencing or anticipating weight stigma increases stress and can lead to overeating,” Hunger said.

The added weight stigma that led to overeating was easily explained by natural human behavior.

“When people feel bad, they tend to eat more, not decide to diet or take a jog. Making people feel bad about their weight could increase their levels of the hormone cortisol which generally leads to weight gain” Tomiyama said.

Students such as An Ton ’17 agree with Tomiyama.

“Sometimes I feel bad after eating a lot, but honestly, we all have different bodies and I’m healthy. I work out and also enjoy food,” Ton said. “It’s sad that some girls are penalized for enjoying important aspects of life like food.”

Society has stigmatized obesity to the extent that diet plans have become a major growing industry. Diet fads such as the “juice cleanse” do not necessarily support healthy lifestyles either. In a juice cleanse, participants are required to only drink juices that supposedly contain all the nutrients a healthy individual needs for an extended amount of time. In reality, the juices may serve as a replacement for nutrients but cannot replace actual meals. Instead of assisting an individual in weight loss, some participants find themselves eating more after they finish their cleanse. Although participants may effectively lose weight in the beginning, many cleanses typically don’t provide long-lasting weight loss strategies.

Diets similar to the cleanse oftentimes create a slingshot effect on a participant’s appetite, which defeats the original purpose of the diet. In addition, cleanse packages often cost exborbitant amounts of money depending on the plan and the type of juices selected. Instead of advertised dieting plans, Tomiyama suggests focusing on fitness and healthy diets rather than obsessing over weight. She strongly opposes stigmatizing individuals who are overweight.

Along with her studies in the self-fulfilling prophecies of obesity, Tomiyama delves into how obesity relates to health. Her other study that was published last December discussed the connection between weight loss and improvements in health.

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