The effects of weight teasing on young people

Young women in a discussion.

Recent research has shown that young people who are subjected to weight stigma—discrimination or teasing regarding their weight—are more likely to experience social isolation and depressive symptoms, engage in self-harm behaviors, and be at risk for engaging in disordered eating.

But studies investigating this link have looked mainly at white and middle- to high-socioeconomic demographic populations, meaning researchers weren’t sure if these results applied to other groups. 

To find out, School of Public Health researchers recently studied the relationship between weight teasing and disordered eating in an ethnically/racially and socioeconomically diverse sample of young people. The study was led by PhD student Laura Hooper and published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Hooper and the researchers examined data from a group of more than 1,500 young people participating in the Project EAT 2010-18 study. (Project EAT is a long-running study tracking the general health and well-being of adolescents as they age into adulthood.) 

The new study found that:

  • Experiencing weight teasing was strongly associated with disordered eating behaviors in both adolescents and young adults.
  • Experiencing weight teasing during adolescence was associated with initiation of dieting and a higher prevalence of dieting and overeating eight years later.
  • Weight teasing and disordered eating were more prevalent among young people of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • The connection between weight teasing and disordered eating was similar across ethnic/racial and socioeconomic demographic groups. 

“Our findings add to the growing evidence that weight-based mistreatment is not helpful and is often harmful to the health of young people,” says Hooper. “This study provides evidence against persistent assumptions that weight teasing and disordered eating primarily affect affluent, white young people.”

Hooper said that future research and policy work should address weight stigma and prioritize the needs of young people of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. She added that developing policies to protect young people from weight-based mistreatment (e.g., legal protections and anti-bullying policies in schools) should include input from young people with these backgrounds.