Q&A: Losing Weight Doesn’t Help Obese Girls Love Themselves — Can Parents?

A new study shows that obese teen girls who lose weight still view themselves as 'fat.' How can parents help their kids lose weight without all the negativity?

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From tough-love anti-obesity ads to dieting 7-year-olds, the fight against childhood obesity is escalating and everyone has a battle strategy. Yet the crusade is not without casualties and surprisingly, those carrying the heaviest emotional tolls are the kids that do shed pounds.

That’s what Purdue University researchers report in a new study on the effects of obesity stigma on teenage girls’ self-esteem. Published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the study found that obese black and white teenage girls who transitioned out of obesity continued to see themselves as fat, despite physical changes from their weight loss. Obese white girls also had lower self-esteem than their normal-weight peers and their self-esteem remained low even when they lost weight. It turns out the effect of the stigma lingers long after the weight is gone.

Lead researcher Sarah Mustillo, an associate professor at Purdue University studying childhood and adolescent obesity, believes parents can play an active role in curbing their overweight child’s self-loathing. Healthland spoke with her about the study and how parents can guide their kids toward healthier weights without insinuating something is “wrong” with them.

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Why do obese girls report strong insecurity issues at such young ages?

Studies have shown that in general, people in the U.S. tend to internalize the negative stereotypes we have of obese people. It starts at a very young age. Studies show 3-year-olds have negative stereotypes of obese people. These stereotypes are part of our society and we learn them through peers and social interactions. Kids learn these before they become obese themselves. Then when they do become overweight, these stereotypes become about them.

Why are negative feelings of self-worth so difficult to shake even after weight loss? Can positive self-images return?

In our study, we found that girls appeared to be integrating their obesity into their identity. Being overweight becomes a part of who they are. Shedding weight is a physical change, but changing how you view yourself is very different. It is a much longer process, but I do believe it is possible to have an identity transformation. People who experience a change can take a while to adapt. When someone gets divorced, it takes them a while to view themselves as a divorced person rather than a married person. Big changes take time.

In the study, black girls who moved into the normal weight range experienced more increased self-esteem than any other group of girls. Why is there a difference in confidence rebounds among races?

This is total speculation, but our thinking is that studies have shown in the black community, especially when it comes to black women, there are different ideals about body and size. In the African American community there tends to be more acceptance of a wider range of body types. This could be because African Americans experience stigmas in other areas and reject the white image of beauty and have their own image.

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How can parents ensure their overweight child understands the importance of being healthier without feeling bad about themselves?

There are a couple ways parents can do this. First, parents should focus on the health aspects of weight loss and not the appearance aspects. Focus on how it will be easier to walk up and down stairs, how gym class will be better, they will have more energy. Don’t say, “Your clothes will fit better.” Don’t talk about appearance, just focus on health. In terms of preventing them from feeling bad about themselves, a child needs to know their value comes from who they are as a person and not what they look like. In terms of identity formation, teens develop their identity based on their personal characteristics and roles. Help them identify with the positive roles in their life, like being a musician or an artist. Encourage them to get their sense of self from being a good artist instead of how they look. It will help counter the negative feedback they get. Focus on the positive and find something they can participate in and excel at.

How can parents treat their child’s emotional damage from teasing at school and the public stigma of obesity?

First off, parents need to realize they can actually have a bigger impact on their kids’ views of themselves than their kids do. First and foremost, we need make sure the parents are not contributing to the problem. Sometimes it’s inadvertent. Sometimes it is saying things like, “You look great in these pants.” Parents may mean it as a compliment, but the child hears, “Given how big you are, you look good in these pants.” Parents need to examine their own stereotypes of obesity and make sure they do not share them at home. Kids pick up on these attitudes. Some parents say things directly, and some parents may not say things not about their child, but about other people in public. For instance, “That lady on the bus is huge.” Parents may think, “I am not talking about my kid, so they won’t be offended,” but saying a person is not a good person due to their size is harmful.

Communication is also really important. Parents can’t combat the negative feedback if they don’t know what children are hearing. Really try to open up communication. If your child won’t talk about it, look for other cues like social isolation. Parents can really take an active role in helping their child process the negative messages they are getting. If the parent teaches the child about bullying and teasing, it explains more about what the other kids are doing wrong than what is wrong with their child. You don’t focus on the weight of the child, but what is really wrong with the other kid that they are treating them poorly.

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A recent essay in Vogue by a mother who put her 7-year-old on a strict diet is sparking outrage. What do you recommend for parents who need to take measures for their child’s weight loss?

From what I know, it is more effective to emphasize the positive than eliminate the negative. Push the benefits of eating yogurt instead of junk food. Encourage your kids to eat fruits and veggies and whole grains as opposed to really strictly limiting particular foods. Parents also have a choice of what they put in the house. If you don’t want your kids eating garbage, don’t buy it. In terms of messages, it is far more effective to be a model for your kids. Get out there and exercise and take your kids with you. I drive my kids crazy trying to get them to go running with me. It is good to keep active and have our kids see us doing that.

Do you think current anti-obesity campaigns are doing a good job?

I think our current emphasis on combating childhood obesity is a good thing. It is an issue that needs attention and putting it in the spotlight is a good thing. Lets Move! is very positive. But I would love to see them incorporate more messages for building self-esteem. Ideally, in terms in combating stigma, we would not let these negative stereotypes happen. If they didn’t exist, kids wouldn’t feel bad about being overweight. But that’s unrealistic. If we can get kids to base their identity on something other than appearance, all kids can benefit from that. We need to teach kids not to base self-worth on what you look like and how to locate self-esteem in something besides appearance. As kids do lose weight, we also need to work on assisting them to change their perceptions of themselves. In our study, as kids lost weight, they continued to see themselves as heavy. We need to help them update their vision of themselves.

MORE: Outrage over Vogue Essay by a Mom Who Put Her 7-Year-Old on a Diet