Overweight and obesity among teenagers has been linked to a range of emotional issues, including low self-esteem and an increased risk of depression. But recent research indicates that losing weight may not lead to an expected boost in self-esteem.
“We found that obese black and white teenage girls who transitioned out of obesity continued to see themselves as fat, despite changes in their relative body mass,” Sarah A. Mustillo, an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University, said in a March 22 Science Daily article about her study.
“Further, obese white girls had lower self-esteem than their normal-weight peers and their self-esteem remained flat even as they transitioned out of obesity,” Mustillo added.
Mustillo’s team drew these conclusions following an analysis of 10 years’ worth of data on 2,000 teen girls, beginning when the study subjects were either 9 or 10 years old. In addition to separating the study data according to the subjects’ race, the researchers also put the girls into one of three categories:
- Normal weight
- Transitioning out of obesity
- Chronically obese
“Studies show that children internalize stereotypes and negative perceptions of obese people before they ever become obese themselves, so when they do enter that stigmatized state, it affects their sense of self-worth,” Mustillo said. “Then, whether they are gaining or losing weight, the negative message they have internalized and feelings of worthless may stick with them.”
While young people of various races and both genders are impacted by body-image issues, considerable research has documented the degree to which young girls are particularly affected by cultural expectations to stay slim. For example, the following statistics are included in an article titled “The Emotional Toll of Being an Overweight Teen” on the website My Overweight Teen:
- In 1970, the average dieting age for a girl was 14; by 1990, it dropped to age 8.
- The “ideal” woman portrayed by models, Barbie dolls and actresses is a woman who is 5’5”, 100 pounds, and a size 5.
- Young girls have told surveyors that they are more afraid of becoming fat than of nuclear war, cancer or losing their parents.
- The average U.S. woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds, whereas the average model is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds.