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October 21, 2016

Middle School Emotional Problems May Result from Weight-Based Discrimination, Not Weight

Middle school girl

Katrina Hoch, Ph.D., M.S., R.D., C.D., Registered Dietitian at The Emily Program

Promoting body acceptance and weight diversity can be helpful not only for supporting recovery from eating disorders, but also for reducing the risk of emotional problems for all teens. In a study published in September in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Jaana Juvonen and colleagues found that perception of weight-based peer discrimination in middle school contributed more than BMI to emotional problems. They also found that the effect of BMI itself on emotional problems in middle school is indirect, as it is mediated by peer mistreatment.

Juvonen and colleagues used data from a longitudinal study of just under six thousand ethnically diverse students in 26 California middle schools. The researchers looked at the students’ BMIs in 6th and 7th grades, perceived weight-based peer discrimination in 7th grade, and emotional adjustment in 8th grade. These data points allowed them to assess both the relative effects of 7th grade BMI and 7th grade peer mistreatment on 8th grade emotional adjustment, and the relationship between 6th grade BMI, 7th grade peer mistreatment, and 8th grade emotional adjustment. The researchers assessed weight-based peer discrimination by asking students about exclusion, disrespectful treatment, threats, or name-calling based on weight. They assessed emotional adjustment by asking questions about body dissatisfaction, social anxiety, loneliness, and somatic symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, nausea, and poor appetite.

Juvonen and colleagues’ findings indicate that regardless of BMI, when teens perceive themselves to be mistreated by their peers due to weight, they experience more body dissatisfaction, anxiety, loneliness, and sickness. It’s notable that this is the case for teens in all BMI categories. The findings also indicate that heavier weight in 6th grade increased the risk of perceived peer mistreatment in 7th grade, and that these perceptions in turn increase the risk of emotional distress in 8th grade.

What do these findings tell us? At a basic level, they tell us that middle school emotional problems are more likely to be caused social stigma than by weight. This suggests that an important path forward is promotion of weight acceptance and weight diversity to reduce weight-based stigmatization. This goal can be pursued through creation of special programs for youth, and by managing existing health promotion programs to ensure that they don’t promote a narrow range of acceptable body weight.


Source: Jaana Juvonen, Leah M. Lessard, Hannah L. Schacter & Luisana Suchilt. (2016): Emotional Implications of Weight Stigma Across Middle School: The Role of Weight-Based Peer Discrimination, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2016.1188703

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