Weight stigma is prevalent in our society, but has permeated even into the sphere of childhood, according to a news briefing released Sept. 19 by the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED). According to the news release, weight stigma is increasingly prevalent in popular children’s television shows, providing children with negative examples of what is socially acceptable.
This release is based on a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders (IJED) by researchers in Minnesota who discovered that 50 percent of popular children’s television shows contain at least one weight-stigmatizing instance. Often the reaction to these stigmatizing events are framed humorously or neutrally, thereby endorsing weight stigma as an acceptable form of social interaction.
Perhaps most concerning is that the instances of weight stigma are often (40 percent of the time) directed towards characters of average weight, distorting what is normal. This distortion poses a direct threat to body satisfaction among children, according to the co-author, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, who has done extensive research on the effects of body dissatisfaction in youth. Dr. Neumark-Sztainer states:
This study provides evidence of one more problematic source contributing to weight stigmatization. Research consistently shows that weight stigmatization is associated with poorer emotional well-being, greater use of disordered eating behaviors, and weight gain over time.
With the start of Weight Stigma Awareness Week, beginning on Sept. 22, this topic is extremely pertinent, highlighting that weight stigma starts at an early age and must be addressed equally early to prevent future harm. It is imperative that this next generation grows up understanding that weight stigma is unacceptable and not socially sanctioned. Providing children with positive body images in the media and teaching about media literacy will all be part of the solution. Social norms can only be changed if we take the effort to instill different values and offer healthy alternatives.
Addressing weight stigma also could have the additional benefit of reducing weight-related bullying in schools, which has always been highly prevalent and a main contributor to children’s body dissatisfaction. As Dr. Neumark-Sztainer implores, “It is past time to be taking weight stigmatization seriously.” So, let’s tackle this problem now and early to prevent another generation from growing up and accepting weight stigma as a social norm.