Media Monday: The Impact of Weight Stigma on Our Youth

TEPF Volunteer
This fall, Biggest Loser star Jillian Michaels announced she would be back on the show this January. But this time her contestants won’t just be adults – each team will also include three children between the ages of 13-17.
On the Today show, Michaels explained the show’s intent to bring awareness to childhood obesity and promote healthy living. She also notes that they plan to be more sensitive in their coaching methods, given the controversial issue. Yet, while the effort may be well intended, it still has the potential to send harmful messages to young people about body image and acceptance. In addition, it could reinforce the stigmas about heavier individuals.
According to research on anti-fat prejudice in children, weight stigma and prejudice begins as early as five years of age1. This trend has become present in younger age groups over recent years, yet the prevalence of childhood obesity has risen. An article by the American Psychological Association analyzed existing research on weight stigma in children and adolescents and concludes with the thought, “[W]e have often been asked the question, ‘Isn’t stigma helpful in motivating weight loss?’ If it were, then the increase in stigmatization of obese children over the past 40 years should have been accompanied by a decrease in childhood obesity rather than by the recent alarming increase.”2 University of Minnesota researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer also asks, “Can we foster the development of physical and social environments that promote healthy eating and physical activity and promote the acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes? This is a crucial question because we clearly need to modify our environment to make it easier to engage in healthier lifestyle behaviors. Yet, we certainly do not want to create a situation that further stigmatizes overweight persons.”3
Is this a situation that could further stigmatize overweight youth, or will it genuinely promote their long-term health? I fully agree that it is essential we address the health of our youth and work to come up with real solutions. Yet, I’m not convinced that putting them on the national weight loss stage will provide them positive motivation for health and lasting feelings of well-being for the future.
What do you think about this new series development and its impact on childhood obesity?
To read more:
1. Penny H, Haddock J. Anti-fat prejudice among children: The “mere proximity” effect in 5–10 year olds. J Exper Soc Psych 2007; 43:4, 678-683.


2. Puhl R, Latner J. Stigma, Obesity, and the Health of the Nation’s Children. Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association.
2007, Vol. 133, No. 4, 557–580


3. Neumark Sztainer, D. Can we Simultaneously Work toward the Prevention of Obesity and Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents? Int J Eat Disord 2005; 38:220–227