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How to Make a Young Girl Fat Later in Life?

  • David Byrd

Can telling a young girl she is 'too fat' contribute to her struggle with weight later in life?

Can telling a young girl she is 'too fat' contribute to her struggle with weight later in life?

Can telling a young girl that she’s “too fat” actually contribute to her weight problem? What effect do words have on forming a girl’s body image and her later struggles with obesity? To find out VOA’s David Byrd spoke with researcher and assistant professor A. Janet Tomiyama at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is the senior author of a study that looked at nearly 2,000 girls who all had been told they were too fat at age 10.

BYRD: If somebody tells a young girl – say at age 8 or 9 --‘you’re too fat’ does that do damage that would actually cause her to gain weight later in life?

TOMIYAMA: Well, our study looks specifically at 10-year-olds, so you’re not too far off with the 8- or 9-year-olds, but you know there’s no way to definitively say that calling a girl too fat is going to cause her to be obese 10 years later or nine years later. But I think there are really compelling reasons to think that calling a girl too fat instead of motivating her to lose weight could actually backfire, and make her perhaps engage in behaviors like eating more to deal with her negative emotions because someone said something negative to her. There’s lots of great research showing that being exposed to negative weight comments can actually demoralize individuals and make them less motivated to put on spandex and go to the gym or try to undertake a really strict diet.

BYRD: You looked at African-American and white girls in Northern California, Ohio, and here in Washington, DC. Was there any breakdown between the racial groups or was the result you found pretty much across the board.

TOMIYAMA: It was across the board. No matter which place, no matter which race whether black or white, the effects were similar.

BYRD: However, in advertising thin is in: everywhere you turn, you’re seeing these pencil thin women, or beautiful women who are 6 ft. tall (1.82 meters) or look like they weigh maybe 110 lbs. (49 kg), and that’s put out as a standard for young women. Does that contribute to this problem as well?

TOMIYAMA: I think I can easily see it contributing to the problem. A sizeable, surprising proportion of these girls that were labeled too fat actually weren’t too fat. They were in the normal range of BMI – that’s body mass index, that’s a way to characterize someone’s weight. And so I think given the images that especially young girls, teenage girls are exposed to that are unrealistic with really dangerously thin standards I think it’s easy for people to be labeled as too fat, perhaps even when they are not too fat.

BYRD: And on the opposite end of that there are people who would call you anorexic if you are too thin?

TOMIYAMA: The take home message form our study is that any sort of evaluative, negative comments might be having these really very long term consequences, and we need to be careful about that.

To read Dr. Tomiyama’s research, log on to the JAMA Pediatrics website,