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“Fat” Label Most Destructive for White Teenage Girls

Update Date: Oct 03, 2013 01:43 PM EDT

Even though hurtful words might not physically harm people, they can really break down one's confidence and self-esteem. During the adolescent years, young girls are introduced to many body image ideals set by the entertainment world. In some occasions, girls might be told to lose weight by friends and family because they are too fat. Even if losing weight could be beneficial in some cases, a new study found that calling a young girl fat could have extremely detrimental consequences. This study discovered that the fat label hurts white teenage girls the most.

"While it's great to see intervention efforts helping young people with physical activity and diet, there is a mental health component related to the stigma of obesity that needs to be addressed," associate professor of sociology, Sarah A. Mustillo said according to Medical Xpress. "If an obese girl was called fat at age 11 or 12, she had more depressive symptoms in her late teens and early 20s compared o obese teens who were not called fat."

For this study, Mustillo and her colleagues monitored 2,379 girls between the ages of nine and 10 for an entire decade starting in 1987. Data on the girls' physical and mental health were gathered as a part of the National Growth and Health Study. The medical information was collected through physical checkups, nutrition and physical assessments, and questionnaires. At the start of the study, eight percent of white girls and 18 percent of black girls were considered to be obese.

The researchers looked at the role of the fat label for both groups of girls. They found that even though black girls reported higher incidences of fat labeling, they experienced less long-term effects in comparison to the white girls. The researchers reasoned that the black community might be better at accepting a wider range of body types, which places less stress for these young black girls. For the white girls on the other hand, there might be more pressure to appear thin. The extra stress and desire to be thin could contribute to longer depressive symptoms.

"White children who were labeled fat at the younger ages of 9 and 10 experienced increased distress at the time, but the effects were short-term," Mustillo said. "However, if they were called fat as a teenager then they were at risk of depressive symptoms as a young adult. Identity is more stable in late childhood, such as at ages 9 and 10, but those tumultuous early adolescence years are vulnerable to negative perceptions such as the shame, self-loathing and rejection often associated with obesity. This study suggests those feelings can stick with them."

The study, "Obesity, Labeling, and Psychological Distress in Late-Childhood and Adolescent Black and White Girls: The Distal Effects of Stigma," was published in Social Psychology Quarterly.

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