The language we use when talking to a child about their weight is very important. Doctors say that they themselves take great care in the words they choose when they talk to a child or their family member about weight and body mass index, even if their official classification falls under obesity.
The New York Times recently published a piece by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, who writes that physicians try to take care in order to avoid further hurting a child who may already be unhappy about their weight. A new policy statement jointly issued from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Obesity society urges pediatricians to use seemingly neutral words instead of words like “overweight” and “fat.”
Past and ongoing research into the social and emotional effects of obesity agree that comments on weight can have a large impact on a child’s self esteem. According to Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a clinical psychologist who is one of the lead authors of the policy statement, “Weight is now one of the most frequent reasons kids are teased or bullied.” One of her studies followed more than a thousand teenagers into their early thirties, and found that children who were bullied because of weight were correlated with binge eating, poor body image, and eating to cope with emotions (not to mention other eating disorders). These correlations, in turn, were linked to obesity in adulthood as well. The effect was present for men and women, but more pronounced for women.
Dr. Puhl says that healthcare professionals might be some of the few allies overweight children and teenagers can have. After all, they are most likely teased by family members as well as their peers. Another ally that comes to mind is teachers - where appropriate, they can intervene in a bullying situation, as well as promote body positivity and physical activity.
We can all be allies if we understand and recognize that making comments about a weight does not encourage positive change; instead, making comments about weight can result in negative, longterm impacts. It is important to make sure that children and teens have access to healthy, positive influences for their physical, mental, and emotional health.