Teasing, taunting, and name-calling can damage a pre-teen’s sense of self worth. Research conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln indicates that overweight pre-teens are susceptible to low self-esteem and a poor body image. Overweight students are the most impacted by weight criticism, indicating higher dissatisfaction with their bodies and perceiving themselves to be larger than they really are.
382 fifth and sixth graders from a Midwestern public school district were included in the study. The students’ BMI (Body Mass Index) scores were utilized to separate the children into four groups: obese, overweight, normal weight, and underweight. The kids completed a questionnaire about teasing (both related to their weight and otherwise) as well as their self-esteem. In order to measure their body size perception, the students were given pictures of different body types and instructed to choose the body size that resembled their own as well as the body type they wanted to have. Their body dissatisfaction was measured by the difference between the body size they resembled and the body size they wanted.
Surprisingly, weight-related criticism did not have the same effect on obese children. The researchers noted that weight-related criticism did not affect self-esteem in obese children, but non-weight-related criticism did. These results suggest that body satisfaction and self-esteem are separate entities, meaning weight is not necessarily associated with self-esteem.
However, high body dissatisfaction has been linked to serious health and emotional problems. A related study revealed that adolescents with high body dissatisfaction developed poor eating and exercise habits, thereby creating a cycle of weight gain and dissatisfaction. Another related study showed that teenage girls with high body dissatisfaction were more likely to develop suicidal thoughts, even if they were within a normal weight range.
The researchers concede to a few limitations that may have skewed the results. Since the study was cross-sectional, it was impossible to determine if low self-perception was caused by criticism, or vice versa. Additionally, because body size perception was measured using self-assessment, it is possible that the students chose incorrectly. Lastly, body perception and satisfaction were only measured by student questionnaires, though other methods should have been employed for a more thorough examination.
Regardless of the limitations of this study, the results can still be worrisome. The teenage years are tough no matter what, and it seems much harder on children with body image issues.