Increasing animosity directed at obese kids
A study finds that obese children are enduring more abuse
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While childhood obesity has risen in recent decades, so has the abuse of overweight kids, University of Hawaii-Manoa and Yale University researchers have concluded.
"The stigmatization directed at obese children by their peers, parents, educators and others is pervasive and often unrelenting," the researchers said.
Another study, published this month by a UH researcher, found a correlation between children's exposure to television, video games and magazines and the extent of their animosity toward obese peers.
"The media contains messages about obese people that are biased and stigmatizing," said Janet Latner, UH-Manoa assistant professor of psychology.
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Stigmatization against overweight children has worsened in the past 40 years while child obesity has grown into a world epidemic, University of Hawaii-Manoa and Yale University researchers report.
"It looks like it's more socially acceptable to stigmatize obesity than to stigmatize, for example, sexual or religious minority groups," Janet Latner, UH-Manoa assistant professor of psychology, said in an interview.
Children must be taught that it's unacceptable to stigmatize an overweight person, she said. "We need educational programs to teach children about weight diversity just as we teach them about other forms of diversity and accepting diversity, including weight."
Latner and clinical psychologist Rebecca M. Puhl of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reviewed four decades' worth of studies on how overweight or obese children are victimized.
They said nearly half of children in North America and 38 percent of children in the European Union will be overweight by 2010 and more must be done to protect obese children from abuse.
Their research, reported in this month's issue of Psychological Bulletin, showed overweight children are stigmatized by their peers, and even by parents and teachers, as early as age 3.
"The stigmatization directed at obese children by their peers, parents, educators and others is pervasive and often unrelenting," the researchers wrote.
"We looked at all the negative consequences that can result," Latner said.
Children who are rejected, teased, bullied or suffer other abuse because of their weight are two to three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and suffer other health issues, such as high blood pressure and eating disorders, the researchers found.
They said the quality of life for obese kids who are victims of taunting and physical bullying is comparable to that of kids who have cancer.
Studies reviewed by the psychologists showed parents and educators also are biased against overweight children.
"Perhaps the most surprising source of weight stigma towards youths is parents," Puhl and Latner reported.
"It is possible that parents may take out their frustration, anger and guilt on their overweight child by adopting stigmatizing attitudes and behavior, such as making critical and negative comments toward their children," they said.
Another study by Latner, "Childhood obesity stigma: Association with television, videogame and magazine exposure," was published in BODY IMAGE and included in Elsevier's FLASH news service this month.
She and her colleagues studied 261 children, ages 10 to 13, when she was a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. They found a strong link between how much they disliked obese peers and their exposure to television, video games and magazines, she said.
"The more they watched TV, read magazines and played video games, the more stigmatizing all the kids were toward obese kids.
"The media contains messages about obese people that are biased and stigmatizing," she said. "Fat women often are the target of laughter on sitcoms. People should be aware of weight stigma so they can avoid putting it in popular media, particularly children's media."
Latner said she is following up on the studies at UH, looking at the link between weight bias and media exposure in adults, replicating the research she did with kids in New Zealand.
Two of her graduate psychology students, Laura Durso and Anna Ciao, are investigating how much bias overweight people have toward themselves and ways of reducing weight bias, she said.
Latner said she also began a two-year study June 1 on long-term behavioral treatments for obesity, funded with a $100,000 grant from the Hawaii Medical Service Association Foundation. She said she will work with community centers and other groups on the study.