Parents, Teens, and Twisted Ideas About Weight

How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life“I would tell them to look beyond the weight and accept me.” These words of a 17-year-boy point to twisted ideas about body weight that surface in the relationships among parents and teens. The words come from a mixed-methods study just published in Body Image by Samantha Lawrence and colleagues. Why is this such an important problem? The authors explain it succinctly:

Public health and media messages routinely perpetuate these beliefs, blaming individuals for their weight and implicating parents as responsible for their children’s weight. Given this pervasive, stigmatizing, societal messaging, it is unsurprising that parents engage in discourse about weight with their children.”

In Their Own Words: 1,743 Teens

Researchers analyzed the free-text responses from 1,743 teens to a simple open-ended question. If you could tell your parent(s) anything about how you want them to talk to you about your weight, what would it be? Responding to this online question, the teens could write whatever they wished, as much as they wished. This is important, because much of the prior research on this subject focused on parents and what they do. Not on adolescents, their feelings, and their preferences.

Lawrence et al analyzed their words, finding 15 themes across three broad categories: whether, how, and what parents should discuss with them about weight. There was a great deal of diversity in the sample and likewise diversity in the responses. But one thing was clear. These young people overwhelmingly prefer that their parents not talk about their weight or talk about it less. What they want is unconditional love and support, as one 17-year-old Black girl explained:

“I wish you could encourage me to love myself more instead of telling me I’ll get all these diseases and die a painful death.”

Choosing Sides

Where does all this angst come from? We suspect it comes from public health messaging, filtered by popular media, that has poisoned the dialogue about obesity. Many people continue to equate body weight with health and insist that diet and exercise are sufficient to overcome obesity. They are adamant and if you doubt it, you just take a look at the trolling of Bill Maher.

At another extreme, we find people lining up who are justifiably angry, but who also falsely insist that obesity is a myth, causes no harm to health, and should never be treated – medically or otherwise. They are “pissed” that the American Academy of Pediatrics would recommend evidence-based care for obesity, regardless of the Academy’s guidance on care for eating disorders as well. They insist that treatment of obesity is impossible without causing eating disorders.

All of this has its roots in twisted ideas about obesity, weight, and health – a drive for thinness at all costs, rather than a focus on health. It’s time to stop with the nihilistic arguments that set concerns about obesity and eating disorders in opposition to each other. Rather, we need to listen to the diverse needs of individual young persons who want to live healthy, happy lives.

Click here for the new article in Body Image and here for more on how ideas about obesity are changing.

How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life, painting by Arshile Gorky / WikiArt

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February 2, 2023