700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Weight Bias and Stigma Remains a Problem for Our Kids

Mar 22, 2024
Mother hugging child

Recently, at a local toddler play place where I was watching my 3-year-old and 6-year-old play, I saw a child struggling to climb onto a small slide. The child was in a larger body and kept trying to get up on the slide, all the while falling off before she could get to the top. I heard another child say to their caregiver, “Mommy, can you help her?” The woman looked at her child and said in hushed tones, “We’ll leave her alone. She’s too fat to play on that slide.” It made me want to cry – for the child in the larger in the body but also for the other child who had only wanted to help.

It brought home for me the acknowledgement that weight bias and stigma are learned. These biases are modeled for us, in our society, by others we know, in our environment, and in our social media feeds. And weight bias and stigma have devastating consequences for children and youth in larger bodies. 

Research has shown that children who experience weight-based bullying and teasing are more likely to have diagnoses of depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal ideation. Let me be clear – having overweight or obesity does not cause depression, low self-esteem, or suicidal thoughts. However, living in our society in a larger body where one may experience repeated microaggressions related to body size as well as overt stigma related to weight can have those results. So how can we begin to speak to our children differently about body size differences? 

  • Caregivers should understand their own negative attitudes towards certain groups (called implicit biases) first. It can be helpful to take an implicit bias test to know where blind spots are. Harvard University’s Project Implicit has a variety of implicit bias tests that are quick, free to take, and available online, including an implicit bias test for weight.
  • Be mindful and sensitive when talking to your children about weight and body size. Model respectful, inclusive language. 
  • Watch TV shows and read books that include positive images and experiences of kids in different body sizes.

If your child is experiencing weight-based teasing or bullying, or if you think they might be, explain that teasing and bullying, for any reason, is always wrong. It is never okay for someone to be singled out, excluded, or called names. Reassure your child that you love them for who they are and that they are enough just the way they are. Create a safe space for them to open up about their feelings:

  • Model talking about feelings. Use your own experiences in an age-appropriate way: “I felt sad when I didn’t get picked for the dodgeball team when I was 8 years old.” Explain how you coped with that feeling, again in an age-appropriate way: “I talked with my school counselor about it and that helped. Just having someone to listen and give me a hug didn’t make the situation go away, but it did help me feel less alone.”
  • Sit with your child and do a shared activity, even in silence. Your child might not be ready to talk about their feelings or their experiences with bullying or weight and that is okay. Just knowing that you are there and care about them helps. It reassures them that when they are ready are talk, you’ll be there to listen.
  • If you child does want to talk about their experiences, feelings, or body, be open to it and listen. Help them problem-solve the situation, which could include talking to school staff, meeting with the school counselor, planning to play with different friends at recess or seeking help from a behavioral health professional. Help your child understand that others care about them and if they want help, help is there. Stress that if your child does not want to involve others for help that is okay. Simply listening to your child is helpful.
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Eileen Chaves
Eileen Chaves, PhD
Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.