Harmful Weight Talk: What is is and why it’s bad for kids’ health

In today’s society, talking about weight is often a sensitive subject, particularly around children and teens.

As adults who care a lot about the kids in our lives, it can be hard to know how to approach conversations about weight with young people. Read on to learn more about harmful weight talk and the impact it has on kids’ health.

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What is weight talk anyways?

Weight talk is any mention of your, a child’s, or someone else’s weight, shape, or size. This includes talking about weight in any context, including:

  • Positively commenting on someone’s weight – “you look so great, have you lost weight?”
  • Negatively commenting on someone’s weight or appearance – “My stomach is so flabby – gross!”
  • Commenting (positively or negatively) on the bodies of those you see on TV, in magazines, or social media.
  • Commenting on your own body.
  • Teasing yourself or others about weight, shape, or size.

Why is weight talk harmful for kids?

While many of us would never talk about a child’s or another person’s weight in a negative way, we find it easy or even expected to comment positively or to comment on our own bodies.

Kids learn by watching what you do and listening to what you say. If you are commenting on your weight, kids hear that and may start to have negative thoughts or concerns about their own weight. Even seemingly positive comments about weight can be harmful because it may reinforce unhealthy food restriction, unhealthy exercise, or other harmful behaviors that resulted in the person’s current weight. Similarly, the person may be experiencing factors such as genetics, illness, or food insecurity that may be impacting their weight. There is no way to know what is really going on with the person you are commenting on.

Research shows that weight talk has a negative impact on kids. In fact, girls as young as age six years old have reported concerns about their body image and gaining weight. And most kids will report some body image concerns before they leave grade-school.

Talking to a child with judgement about weight is known to contribute to negative thoughts about one’s body. Weight talk can lead children to develop a negative self-image. It can also lead children to develop harmful habits in an attempt to control their weight at a time when their bodies are growing and brains are developing.

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What about health? Isn’t it healthy to be mindful of weight and to help our kids do so?

Research shows that focusing on weight does not contribute to a healthier lifestyle. It’s also important to remember that size does not equate to health. If it is health that you are concerned with, you need to keep the focus on health.

Health and well-being are the result of many factors. When you put too much emphasis on weight, you miss the point! The point is that you want the kids in your life to feel good. There are many factors that contribute to an individual’s well-being: relationships that foster connection, hobbies that show and remind us who we are, physical activity that invigorates and refreshes our minds and bodies, learning new things, taking on challenges and succeeding, time spent outside, and more. When you shift your focus away from weight, you can instead consider all the individual’s circumstances and help yourself and your kids increase your overall well-being. Learn more here.

Aren’t we all just being a bit too sensitive? Shouldn’t we instead be helping our kids to not take everything so personally?

Kids will and do receive negative messages from all over, especially considering the increased use of media in our digital world. It’s important to help kids navigate that and learn which voices to listen to and which to disregard. As a trusted adult, you have a powerful voice. Decades of research repeatedly point to the incredible influence that adults have on children’s body image, relationship with food, and the likelihood that a child will go on to develop an eating disorder. You can act now to shift the way that you talk to the kids in your life about food and body and protect their mental and physical health for years to come.

Okay, I understand that talking about weight is harmful to the kids in my life. So, what can I say instead to help promote physical and mental health?

We all want the kids in our lives to lead happy and healthy lives. Not talking to the kids in your lift about weight doesn’t mean that you can’t help them form habits that will protect their physical and mental well-being for years to come. You can check out examples of alternate of ways of talking about food & body around the kids in your life. Have a specific question you want to ask an expert? Our What to Say Hub members can now submit questions to be answered during our NEW, EXCLUSIVE monthly “What to Say Q&A Series” where you’ll hear from trusted sources in kids’ health on how to handle real life situations. Submit your question here and it could be answered during an upcoming series. Check out our first episode here.