New research shows that negative conversations and attitudes around weight can have a lasting effect on people.

Pressure from family, media to lose weight as a teen can have ‘long-lasting effects’ on body image. Here’s what to do about it.

A new study reveals the long-term impact pressure to lose weight can have on teens. (Getty Images)
A new study reveals the long-term impact pressure to lose weight can have on teens. (Getty Images)

New research shows that negative conversations and attitudes around weight can have a lasting effect on people — specifically, those who feel pressure to lose weight in their teens can struggle with body image decades later.

The study, which was published in the Lancet Regional Health, analyzed data from more than 4,000 31-year-olds who participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which is a cohort study of children born in the former county of Avon, England, during 1991 and 1992. The researchers analyzed each participant for a range of factors, including their weight as a child and current views of their bodies.

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The researchers found that people who felt pressure as teenagers from family to lose weight, experienced weight-related teasing by family members and felt pressure from the media to lose weight had higher levels of internalized weight stigma by age 31, regardless of their body mass index (BMI). (Internalized weight stigma is when a person takes negative views or beliefs about body weight and applies them to themselves.) There was also a link between being bullied as a teen and young adult and having internalized weight stigma.

Females and people who did not identify as heterosexual were most likely to internalize weight stigma than others, along with people who spent more of their 20s not in education, employment or training, or whose mothers had fewer educational qualifications. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that “pressure to lose weight from family and the media in adolescence may have long-lasting effects on internalized weight stigma.”

Weight bias is common. Two in five Americans with a BMI that’s considered higher than “normal” have internalized weight bias — and the latest study found that even people with normal BMIs experience this internal struggle over their own weight.

“This adds to the evidence that it really matters how we talk about weight in families, schools and society at large, because the effects can be long-lasting,” lead study author Amanda Hughes, a research fellow at Bristol Medical School, tells Yahoo Life.

Why do conversations about weight have such an impact?

Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that teens are “particularly vulnerable” to hearing talk about weight. “Teens are developing their sense of self-identity and are more likely to be influenced by comments from family, friends and media,” he says.

Media can also “present unrealistic beauty standards that can make teens feel insecure about their bodies,” he says. If a teenager experiences weight stigma during this time in their life, it can end up being “emotionally damaging,” leading to a negative body image, Ganjian says.

Hughes points out that the study participants were all born around 1991 and grew up before social media took off. As a result, their influences came from TV and magazines. But today’s kids are exposed to those elements, as well as social media, which can also influence body image. It’s just unclear exactly how social media impacts teens around weight. “Social media may increase pressure on teens, but it can also be a source of support, and can be used to promote body positivity,” Hughes says. Ultimately, more research is needed to see how social media affects teens when it comes to weight, she says.

Still, “content which says that ‘thin equals good’ and ‘not thin equals bad’ tells teens that their value as people is dependent on their weight,” Hughes says.

Teens are “under a lot of pressure” and they’re starting to form their adult identity, Hughes adds. “In this context, teens may be extra vulnerable to messaging that undermines positive self-concept,” she says.

“Teens are particularly at risk for pressures from weight bias because they are at a point in their lives where they are searching for belonging, affirmation, identity and self-confidence,” Dr. Danielle Grant, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Pediatrics, tells Yahoo Life. “Pressure and teasing about weight can easily escalate into bullying and cyberbullying.”

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What can teens do to fight this stigma?

There are a few things teens and their families can do to fight this stigma. First is to develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise, which families can also promote as a whole, Ganjian says. He also recommends “surrounding yourself with positive people who support you for who you are.”

“Teens can also unfollow accounts on social media when they notice they cause them to feel negatively about themselves,” suggests Grant.

If weight is a concern for a teen, Ganjian suggests talking to a trusted adult, like a parent, counselor or doctor. But families should also try to have positive conversations around weight when it comes to teens and to be mindful that their words have an impact, Thea Gallagher, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life. “We need to be very careful about how weight is discussed at home — not only the weight of children but your own weight,” she says. Hughes agrees. “The family we grow up in is, after all, a huge influence on how we see ourselves,” she says.

Gallagher recommends that families steer the conversation away from comments about shape, weight, appearance and attractiveness and focus on positive conversations about health and what your body can do for you. But Ganjian says it’s also important not to be dismissive of teens’ thoughts and feelings about weight. “Create a supportive environment where teens feel comfortable talking about their concerns about weight and body image,” he says.

Hughes says that there needs to be a cultural shift around perceptions about weight too. “It’s the responsibility of society as a whole, not just of teens, to remember that a person’s worth is not about their weight,” she says. “Be mindful of how you talk about weight — this can have a real impact on the people around you.”

How can adults move past internalized weight stigma?

Gallagher points out that a lot of people have internalized some societal views about weight. “We’re all a little messed up around shape and weight,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize how much this impacts them.”

Doing your best to pivot negative thoughts about weight toward positive ones, like focusing on how your legs help you get around or your arms allow you to lift heavy objects, can be helpful, Gallagher says. “But if weight is coming to your mind often or you’re adjusting your behaviors and it’s taking up a significant portion of your thinking, it’s probably worth talking to a therapist about,” she says. “A lot of us have a complicated relationship with food, shape and weight. It’s important to unpack it.”






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