Overweight children are stigmatized by their peers as early as age three and even face bias from their parents and teachers, giving them a quality of life comparable to people with cancer, a new analysis concludes.
Youngsters who report teasing, rejection, bullying and other types of abuse because of their weight are two to three times more likely to report suicidal thoughts as well as to suffer from other health issues such as high blood pressure and eating disorders, researchers said.
"The stigmatization directed at obese children by their peers, parents, educators and others is pervasive and often unrelenting," researchers with Yale University and the University of Hawaii at Manatoa wrote in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin.
The paper was based on a review of all research on youth weight bias over the past 40 years, said lead author Rebecca M. Puhl of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
It comes amid a growing worldwide epidemic of child obesity. By 2010, almost 50 per cent of children in North America and 38 per cent of children in the European Union will be overweight, the researchers said.
While programs to prevent childhood obesity are growing, more efforts are needed to protect overweight children from abuse, Puhl said.
"The quality of life for kids who are obese is comparable to the quality of life of kids who have cancer," Puhl said, citing one study. "These kids are facing stigma from everywhere they look in society, whether it's media, school or at home."
The stigmatization of overweight children has been documented for decades. When children were asked to rank photos of children as friends in a 1961 study, the overweight child was ranked last.
Children as young asthree are more likely to consider overweight peers to be mean, stupid, ugly and sloppy.
A growing body of research shows that parents and educators are also biased against heavy children. In a 1999 study of 115 middle and high school teachers, 20 per cent said they believed obese people are untidy, less likely to succeed and more emotional.
"Perhaps the most surprising source of weight stigma toward youths is parents," the report says.
Teasing by parents common
Several studies showed that overweight girls got less college financial support from their parents than average-weight girls. Other studies showed teasing by parents was common.
"It is possible that parents may take out their frustration, anger and guilt on their overweight child by adopting stigmatizing attitudes and behaviour, such as making critical and negative comments toward their child," the authors wrote, suggesting further research is needed.
The Yale-Hawaii report recommends more research to determine whether negative stereotypes lead to discriminatory behavior, citing evidence that overweight adults face discrimination. It also calls for studying ways to reduce stigma and negative attitudes toward overweight children.
"Weight-based discrimination is as important a problem as racial discrimination or discrimination against children with physical disabilities," the report concludes. "Remedying it needs to be taken equally seriously."