The Vicious Cycle of Weight-Based Teasing In Adolescents

The adolescent years are rarely easy, even for those kids who seem to have everything they need.  The compounding stress from school, home life, puberty, a social life, and now social media, make it very hard to avoid stress.  But if you are overweight or obese, life as a teen can be even harder. 

For one, adolescence is often quite physical, requiring lots of energy and focus for long periods of time.  Those who may already be at a disadvantage will struggle.  More importantly, though, children and teens who are overweight are often teased—nay, bullied—over their weight. And, as a new study shows, this can have long term consequences; contrary to common belief, one of these consequences is increased weight gain into adulthood. 

According to study author Natasha Schvey, “There’s this school of thought that says [weight-based] teasing might have a motivating effect on youth.  This study shows that that’s not only nottrue, but that teasing might increase weight gain over time.”

To get a better idea of this, the researchers observed 110 children and young teens (with an average age of about 12 years) who were already overweight or had two parents who are overweight (and, thus, more likely to be overweight, too).  At the first (and subsequent) visits, the children were asked about their experience with bullying, based on their size.  62 percent of the children reported teasing about their weight. Only 21 percent (about one-third) of “straight-size” at-risk kids reported the same.

After the initial reporting, the researchers followed these children and adolescents for up to 15 years.  The final tally indicated that teasing resulted in 33 percent more body mass gain, on average, and at least 91 percent more fat per year, than their peers who were not teased (based on weight). This is regardless of where they were at the start of the study. 

Schvey, a Uniformed Services University assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology, makes sure to caution that this is only an observational study. This means we need more investigation to determine if there is a causal link between teasing and weight gain.  Still, she says, “we can say weight-based teasing was significantly linked with weight gain over time.”

The results of this study have been published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.