Teasing about weight takes its toll on kids, U study finds
Star Tribune Company - August 11, 2003

Sticks and stones may break kids' bones, but teasing words about their bodies will break their hearts, according a study published today.

University of Minnesota researchers found that kids who were teased about their body types -- regardless of size -- were two to three times more likely to think about or attempt suicide than kids who weren't teased.

The emotional effect was much worse for girls, and much worse for boys and girls if they were teased by both their peers and family members, researchers said.

"It can have some profound effects on young people," said Marla Eisenberg, a research associate at the university's School of Public Health and the lead author on the study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. "It's not harmless. For many it digs in very deep and can be very harmful."

She surveyed 4,700 Twin Cities middle and high school kids about whether they had been teased as part of a larger research project on adolescent nutrition called Project EAT. She found that about one-third of girls and about one-fourth of boys had been teased by their peers, and 29 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys were teased by family members.

Those who were teased by both had emotional problems that were far more severe.

Half of the girls in that group had thought about suicide, and one fourth had attempted it, the study showed. For boys the rates were 34 percent thought about suicide and 12 percent attempted it.

Those rates were much higher than the percent of all Minnesota teenagers who think about suicide -- 16 to 24 percent, and the percent who attempt it -- 5 to 7.5 percent, according to the Minnesota Health Department.

But in what Eisenberg described as a surprising result, both thin and overweight kids suffered the emotional effects of teasing.

"The effect of teasing was the same no matter what the body type was," she said.

Among girls, about half said they had symptoms of serious depression and poor body image. Among boys, 14 to 20 percent said they had low self esteem.

"I think it's an extremely important finding for health care providers," said Julie Erickson, a psychologist who treats teenagers at Teenage Medical Services, a Minneapolis clinic operated by Children's Hospitals and Clinics. "I don't think it's true that kids get over teasing. There are some kids who are more vulnerable to it."

Both Erickson and Eisenberg said that schools and parents should view teasing about body weight as seriously as racial teasing, and make it clear that it's not acceptable.

"Schools can create policies around racial slurs and hate speech to show that they are not acceptable," Eisenberg said. " They can add this in, that it's not OK to tease people about body shape either."

Josephine Marcotty is atmarcotty@startribune.com.

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Last updated: 08/14/2003 - 09:52 PM