Sad, Not Surprising: Overweight Girls Experience More Emotional Problems

Illustration for article titled Sad, Not Surprising: Overweight Girls Experience More Emotional Problems

A new study claims that overweight children, especially girls, experience more depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Heavier kids are perceived differently by their teachers, their peers, and themselves as early as kindergarten.

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Researchers at the University of Missouri divided a group of 8,000 children into those who were overweight from kindergarten through third grade, those who only became overweight as third graders, and those who were never overweight, reports Reuters. The children filled out questionnaires about their feelings and teachers answered questions about how they perceived their students.

Children who were consistently overweight reported feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness that got worse as they grew older. Those who were overweight at any point saw themselves as having worse interpersonal skills, lower social standing, and worse peer relationships than the children who were never overweight.

According to EurekAlert, lead researcher Dr. Sara Gable said:

"Overweight is widely considered a stigmatizing condition and overweight individuals are typically blamed for their situation. The experience of being stigmatized often leads to negative feelings, even in children."

Gable found boys experienced more negative feelings about their weight than expected. "I think there's a tendency to believe that boys don't experience those consequences until later," she said. However, teachers reported that overweight girls still had more problems than their male counterparts: The boys' weight didn't influence how teachers perceived their social and self-control skills, and teachers actually felt they acted out less and were less aggressive than the children who were not overweight.

As for the girls, teachers perceived even those who were only nearing the overweight classification as being less well behaved. Gable said:

"Girls who were consistently overweight, from kindergarten through third grade, and girls who were approaching being overweight were viewed less favorably than girls who were never overweight... Teachers reported that these girls had less positive social relations and displayed less self-control and more acting out than never-overweight girls."

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It's possible that the teachers' prejudices made them see the overweight girls as more out of control, while the heavy boys were viewed as more amiable and easy-going. But if the teachers' observations about their students were accurate, girls are starting to experience negative emotions about themselves because of their weight before they're even "officially" overweight.

With USA Today reporting that the number of children hospitalized for obesity-related illnesses nearly doubled from 1999 to 2005, it's obviously important for children to maintain a healthy weight for their physical well being. But it's disturbing to see that in addition to the health problems overweight kids may face, their weight starts having a negative psychological effect on them when they're still in elementary school.

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Weight Affects How Littlest Kids See Themselves [Reuters]
Overweight Kids Experience More Loneliness, Anxiety, MU Study Finds [EurekAlert]
Study: Hospitalizations Related To Childhood Obesity Nearly Double [USA Today]

DISCUSSION

I'd also be interested to hear if they find similar results for children who *perceive* themselves to be overweight, even if their weight is in fact perfectly healthy (according to the inaccurate measures of health by which such things are determined...) I'm curious for largely narcissistic reasons: I always thought of myself as overweight, even though I was just a normal kid (with abnormally skinny siblings). *To this day* I remember the first time I ever felt fat: my best friend's grandfather told me he noticed that I ran slower than the other kids. Why did he say it? Who the fuck knows. All I know is from that I got "you are a slow, fat, inferior child. Put down the potato chips, tubby."

Anyway, I've struggled with depression and anxiety disorders for years now (along with an abnormally high need for approval and affirmation from others), without a family history. Be interesting if my perception of my weight growing up had played into that.