Pressure to lose weight in adolescence linked to sense of self-worth later in life

  • 16 April 2024

Women, people who are not heterosexual, those experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage and those who, as teenagers, felt pressure to lose weight from family or from the media are most at risk of ‘internalised’ weight stigma, according to research from the University of Bristol. The study is published in The Lancet Regional Health Europe today [16 April].

‘Internalised’ weight stigma, is when people apply negative obesity-related stereotypes to themselves, such as thinking they are less attractive, less competent, or less valuable as a person because of their weight. This is the first time a study has used a large UK sample to examine who is most at risk.

In England, around one in four people are living with obesity, but it is highly stigmatised. Negative obesity-related stereotypes and weight-related discrimination are widespread in society. Experience of weight stigma is a major public health issue: people affected by weight stigma are more likely to have poor mental health, eating disorders and may delay seeking medical treatment. However, little is known about which population groups are at higher risk of internalised weight stigma, because previous research has used small, nonrepresentative samples.

Using data from Bristol’s Children of the 90s (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children), this new study examined differences in internalised weight stigma in over 4,000 people aged 31 years by sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, sexual orientation, and family and wider social influences in childhood and adolescence.

The research found that feeling pressure from family to lose weight, weight-related teasing by family members, and feeling pressure from the media to lose weight as a teenager were all linked to higher levels of internalised weight stigma at age 31, and this was not explained by differences in body mass index (BMI). Being bullied in adolescence (at age 17 years) and adulthood (at age 23 years) were also independently linked to internalised weight stigma at age 31.

The study also found there are clear differences in internalised weight stigma between other groups of the population, which were also not explained by differences in BMI. Females and people who did not identify as heterosexual are at greater risk of internalized weight stigma. People who had spent more of their 20’s as NEETs (not in education, employment or training), or whose mothers had fewer educational qualifications, are also more at risk of internalised weight stigma.

Dr Amanda Hughes, Research Fellow in the Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences (PHS) and corresponding author, said: “The family environment in adolescence, bullying, and pressure to lose weight from the media may have long-lasting impacts on how people value themselves based on their weight as adults.

“We have an opportunity to reduce weight stigma and its consequences by changing how we discuss weight in the media, in public spaces and in families, and how we respond to bullying in schools, workplaces, and other settings.

“This is crucial considering how common pressure to lose weight and weight-related bullying, stigma and discrimination are in many cultures around the world.”

The researchers now plan to explore in detail the psychological processes by which these social factors may influence internalised weight stigma.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Medical Research Council (MRC), National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), and Wellcome Trust.

Screenshot of paper titled: Demographic, socioeconomic and life-course risk factors for internalised weight stigma in adulthood: Evidence from and English birth cohort study

Demographic, socioeconomic and life-course risk factors for internalized weight stigma in adulthood: evidence from an English birth cohort study