Health

What Happens When Girls Are Weight Shamed Early in Life

March 4th 2016

By:
Laura Donovan

Research has shown that having a negative body image early in life can have long-term effects — and I know this to be true from personal experience.

As a child and teenager, I was gangly and rail thin no matter how many burritos I ate, a genetic bonus from having a tall, waifish mom who was nicknamed "bird legs" throughout her youth. People outside my family shamed me for being underweight, believing I must be anorexic to stay so little, but my parents always explained that I had a naturally smaller frame like my mother.

Once I hit my early 20s though, I stopped resembling the slender ladies on my mom's side of the family and developed wide hips, thick calves and thighs, and an overall sturdier build like my dad's Irish aunts and mother. My transition was especially disarming and confusing to adults who had watched me grow up as a scrawny redhead. Suddenly everyone felt the need to comment on my weight gain, expecting me to say "thank you" to the backhanded compliment since I was "too skinny all of those years anyway." 

I'd been shamed for my thinness throughout adolescence and childhood, and when this description was no longer applicable, others couldn't help but fixate on my different appearance.

Mind your own body.

For me specifically, being shamed for skinniness as a teen made it that much harder to be mocked for gaining weight as a young adult, because this meant I could never look just right. Sadly, many women understand this feeling of self-doubt and are all too familiar with the long-term effects of being weight shamed early in life.

Dr. Carla Stokes, a professional speaker who works specifically with teenage girls and women through life pressures and transitions, told ATTN: via email that body shaming young girls can foster "poor body image, anxiety, depression, unhealthy behaviors, emotional eating, eating disorders," and more.

"In general, I think it's best for people to mind their business and refrain from monitoring or commenting on other people's bodies," Dr. Stokes wrote. "Adults in particular should refrain from policing and making unsolicited comments about girls' bodies. Even those with positive motives may unintentionally teach girls that their worth is determined by their physical appearance or cause emotional harm by making insensitive comments."

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Some women never forget the criticism they received for their weight early in life.

"Many adult women and mothers have shared insensitive comments about their appearance that they heard from adults and family members when they were girls that are still painful to remember decades later," Dr. Stokes said.

Dr. Carol Langlois, the author of "Girl Talk: Boys, Bullies and Body Image," told ATTN: over the phone that she doesn't believe it matters whether you're body shamed for being thin or overweight at a young age, as you still get the message early in life that something is wrong with you.

"They start to kind of dislike their own body, look in the mirror and say, 'Well, if everyone is saying that, it must be true,'" Dr. Langlois told ATTN:. "They lose self-confidence, self-esteem, and then they can alternately lose self-respect for themselves."

Dr. Langlois added that it can be especially taxing to experience one type of body shaming as a young girl, such as thin shaming, and be picked apart for gaining weight as an adult.

"It's such mixed messaging," Dr. Langlois said. "What a struggle. You've already been told you're underweight and then all the sudden you're told you're overweight. It goes back to this idea that people are expecting you to be 'perfect,' and you're not perfect, you're just trying to be yourself. Damned if you do, damned if you don't."

She noted that this can even lead to eating disorders if a woman notices she is ridiculed less for being thin than for putting on weight:

"It creates a very uncomfortable view of self, and I think it depends on where they feel less ridicule. If they feel less ridicule at the underweight stage, then that's where eating disorders can come into play and then they'll start losing weight."

Preventing body image issues early in life.

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Dr. Langlois and Dr. Stokes both told ATTN: that it's important to talk about body image in a careful manner with young women so they don't develop self-esteem issues.

"Show sensitivity and avoid making comments about your daughter that may be hurtful to her," Dr. Stokes said, adding that parents can influence how kids feel about themselves. "Girls with low self-esteem are more likely to have parents who are critical or judgmental. Thus, your words and actions affect your daughter’s developing body image, confidence, and self-esteem for better or worse. If you tease her or make negative comments about her appearance, you will teach her to feel shame about her body, which will ultimately damage her self-esteem."

Dr. Langlois said it would be best not to focus on a person's weight shift. Rather, it's helpful to tell a young girl she looks good.

"I would probably focus more on, 'You look good, you look healthy,' things like that, or 'That outfit looks great on you, it fits you really well,'" Dr. Langlois said. "I know people don't necessarily mean any harm by it, but when people say, 'Oh, you've lost weight, you look great,' all that does for a 15-year-old or 16-year-old is let them know, 'Oh, losing weight and being thin is a positive, so let me just keep losing weight.' And then they end up in a really unhealthy place."

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