Being weight-shamed from a young age has long-term consequences

Nearly two-thirds of study participants said they had been criticized for their weight at least once in their lives

An American study has explored the link between the stigma regularly experienced by overweight individuals and the effects on their mental health, especially in terms of self-shaming.

Suffering pointed looks from passersby or receiving “well-meaning” commentary from friends and family about body weight is often associated with self-devaluation, leading to increased risks on mental health. While this effect has long been observed, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have looked into whether some people were more likely than others to be vulnerable to “self-stigmatizing” about their own weight.

Published in Obesity Science and Practice, the study was directed by Rebecca Pearl, PhD, an assistant professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. This new study synthesized survey results from 18,000 people who participated in a commercialized weight-loss program offered nationwide by the Weight Watchers International company.

The study's participants responded anonymously regarding their experiences of stigmatization and weight-shaming from other people, noting frequency and the impacts on their psychological state. They assessed whether that led them to self-shame regarding their own physical and mental characteristics.

Greater internalized stigma when weight criticism dates to childhood

Nearly two-thirds of the participants affirmed having been confronted with weight-related criticism at least once in their lives. The study showed that nearly half experienced this criticism during childhood and adolescence. The study also showed that women, young people, and those with a high body mass index were most vulnerable to self-shaming, while those of African-American descent and adults in couples were less.

According to the study, people who experienced stigmatization over their weight were more likely to devalue themselves than others, especially those who had suffered from these disagreeable experiences from childhood. Individuals who received commentary about their body weight from members of their family, friends, colleagues, or health professionals were also more affected.

"We don't yet know why some people who struggle with their weight internalize society's stigma and others do not," said Pearl. "These findings represent a first step toward helping us identify, among people trying to manage their weight, who may be most likely to self-stigmatize. People who are trying to lose weight may be among the most vulnerable to weight self-stigma, but this issue is rarely discussed in treatment."