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Calling girls 'fat' can affect their weight

Fat – and it has more of an impact on human psychology than originally thought. In a new study, researchers found that simply telling a young girl she’s fat

It’s the other “F” word.

Fat – and it has more of an impact on human psychology than originally thought. In a new study, researchers found that simply telling a young girl she’s fat increases her risk of eventually becoming obese. 

The decade-long study followed more than 2,300 girls in California, Ohio, and Washington, DC. All the girls had their height and weight checked twice during the study, once at age 10 and again at 19. When research began, 58% of the girls had been told by a parent, sibling, close friend, classmate, or teacher that they were either “fat” or “too fat” – and those girls were found to be 1.66 times more likely to be obese at the end of their teenage years.  This month’s study looked at the impact weigh-labeling can have on young girls; no recent data exists for adolescent boys. Authors controlled the girls’ initial body mass index so as to solely hone in on the weight-labeling aspect.

“That we found any effect at all was quite surprising,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, Ph.D., the senior author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. “You would expect bullying to have long-term effect, but simple labeling just took us by surprise because it made us realize that maybe the ‘F’ word is much more powerful than we thought.”

The study, done by two researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and University of California Santa Barbara and published in JAMA Pediatrics, does not take into account home economics or education, as a way to counteract a belief that poverty or a poor education can lead to obesity. But there is one glaring line in the data: the risk for obesity was higher if someone in their family told the girls they were “too fat,” as opposed to a non-family member, like teacher or classmate.

“Normally when you’re part of a stigmatized minority group, the people who are closest to you tend to be your allies,” Tomiyama told msnbc Thursday. “In the case of weight-labeling, there seems to be a flip where those closest to you can be the most critical, where normally they’d be the sources of support.”

The findings seem to confirm a 2007 Yale University study where the stigmatization of overweight children was shown to have negative consequences on their physical and mental health.  However, professionals, both inside and outside of the research, are quick to point out there is no cause-and-effect relationship, meaning just because a young girl is called “fat,” doesn’t mean she will grow up to be obese.

“In psychology, cause-and-effect means one variable causes another to occur and we don’t see that here,” said Andrew Getzfeld, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of psychology at NYU. “There’s a notion here of self-efficacy – that if you believe in something, it’s more likely to happen. Just labeling a child is usually not going to amount to much good. Children don’t have filters adults have and can’t process things like adults can.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges parents and guardians to approach any child’s weight issues from a health perspective, and not an appearance perspective. That move to combat a rise in childhood obesity has taken on a national voice in the past decade with first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, as well as state-based campaigns like “Strong4Life” in inner-city Atlanta. 

“Adolescents are very impressionable and if you say something they tend to take it to heart,” Getzfeld told msnbc Thursday. “There’s a way to say ‘you have a weight problem’ as opposed to saying ‘you’re fat and need to go on a diet.’ It’s a matter of semantics. The bottom line is we have to be careful what we say to kids because words hurt.” 

So much for the whole “sticks and stones” adage.