Making someone feel bad about their body is never OK and body-shaming, whether it's from a bully on the playground or from someone at home, can have serious effects on a child that can linger into adulthood. In fact, according to new research, those whose parents push them to lose weight are more likely to pressure their own kids to lose weight, as well as to experience a variety of other unhealthy effects.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed a group of socioeconomically and ethnically diverse subjects from adolescence to adulthood. WebMD reported that the researchers observed more than 550 subjects for the study, two-thirds of which were women. Back in 1998 and 1999, subjects filled out surveys and had their body measurements taken and recorded. In 2015 and 2016, by the time the subjects were young adults, they took new surveys and had their bodies measured again.
"Intergenerational transmission of encouragement to diet occurred and resulted in parents being more likely to report other weight-focused communication in the home environment," the study's authors explained. Don't worry, I translated that for you (after reading it about 10 times). Basically, they found that those whose parents encouraged them to diet were more likely to encourage their own kids to diet; additionally, these subjects were also more likely to discuss body weight in general.
Not only did being encouraged to diet by a parent make subjects more likely to do the same to their children, but it also had a number of harmful effects on their health as well. The study's authors wrote:
Experiencing parent encouragement to diet as an adolescent was significantly associated with a higher risk of overweight or obesity, dieting, binge eating, engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors, and lower body satisfaction 15 years later as a parent.
So what should parents who are genuinely concerned about their child's weight or diet do? Jerica Berge, who co-authored the study, told WebMD how parents should discuss physical health with their kids. "Parents are concerned about their kids, but need to try to focus on healthy conversations," Berge told WebMD. "Instead of focusing on weight, talk about how healthy eating can help everyone in the family be stronger physically and live longer lives."
Furthermore, Berge and the other authors advise doctors to teach parents that pressuring their children to diet can have negative consequences. The authors wrote:
Exposure to parent encouragement to diet as an adolescent had long-term harmful associations with weight-related and emotional health outcomes in parenthood and was transmitted to the next generation. It may be important for health care providers to educate parents about the potential harmful and long-lasting consequences of engaging in encouragement to diet with their children.
In November 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Obesity Society released a joint policy statement regarding fat shaming, arguing that making others feel bad about their bodies can have severe effects. Even though this research focused more on body shaming from peers as opposed to body shaming from parents, both studies show that body shaming others is never OK — not only because it's plain mean, but also because it can seriously negatively impact the victim.
Not to mention, the AAP and the Obesity Society had similar advice about how to handle this issue. Firstly, they recommend that doctors educate families on the proper way to discuss obesity and other body matters with their children. Additionally, it's important to carefully choose language when broaching the topic. For example, "neutral" words like "weight" and "BMI" are often better received than words like "obese" and "fat."
For more tips on how to broach the subject of weight with your child, check out The New York Times' article on the topic. Dr. Stephen J. Pont, who co-authored the the AAP and the Obesity Society's statement, summed things up nicely for the outlet: "It’s important to focus on positive reinforcement and not jump to negative."
When broaching a sensitive topic, don't hesitate to do research, or even ask a doctor for advice. It's important to remember, as most parents are already aware, that words hold a lot of meaning and, as this study shows, certain comments can have lasting consequences.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.