The Relationship Between Childhood Obesity and Self-Esteem

More and more focus is being placed on the welfare of our children. Everyday doctors diagnose children with obesity. The stigma that comes along with being identified as “obese” can severely affect the psychological state of these children. It is well known that children who are identified as “obese” tend to be bullied and discriminated against.

Childhood obesity has been associated with long-term psychological and physical effects. Obese children and adolescents (pre-teens and teens) tend to suffer from body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. This is especially true for adolescent females who tend to place value on appearance, societal ideals and peer relationships. Low self-esteem typically occurs when the obese child internalizes the difference between his/her own appearance (weight) and societal ideals of what is acceptable, desirable and beautiful. Research suggests that there is a correlation between childhood obesity, psychological distress and low self-esteem. The strength of the correlation depends on the child’s age, gender and level of obesity.

Socioeconomic Factors

Research suggests that obese Caucasian and Hispanic females experience a substantially lower self-esteem during their pre-teen (early adolescent years) then those considered a “normal” or “average” weight. Furthermore, obese children and adolescents with extremely low self-esteem tend to also suffer from high levels of despair, loneliness, anxiety and risky behaviors (promiscuity, violence and/or alcohol and/or drug addictions) then those who are not obese or experiencing low self-esteem.

Some studies suggest that while childhood obesity (as a whole) is an important and increasing epidemic, the frequency and enormity of the problem in relationship to low-self-esteem is debatable. Some studies have found that in general, obese children and adolescents tend to have a low self-esteem, but other studies dispute these findings and report that most obese children have a healthy self-esteem, despite their weight. It is important to take into account the obese child’s race, culture, age, gender and economic status when interpreting the results of the various childhood obesity and self-esteem studies. For example: Obese African American children and adolescents, who live in urban areas, typically do not exhibit signs of low self-esteem. In addition, preschool children, who live in small towns and cities, also do not show signs of low-self-esteem.

One study on childhood obesity and low self-esteem found that less than 1% of urban, obese African American children (ages 9-17) experienced low self-esteem. Furthermore, all of the children tested with the Piers-Harris Self-Esteem Inventory had self-esteem scores that fell within the healthy range. The results indicated that childhood obesity may not be as injurious as previously thought (Kaplan & Wadden, 1986).

Competence

Obesity not only affects some children negatively when it comes to self-esteem, it can also affect the way adolescents perceive themselves in relation to others, especially their peers. Research suggests that obese adolescents tend to view themselves as “lacking” or “incompetent” when it comes to athletics, appearance and social interactions with peers. It is important to note that not all obese adolescents feel incapable in these areas.

One study found that obese adolescents tended to view themselves as “lacking” in the areas of athletics, self-value and physical appearance in relation to their peers. Moreover, obese Australian female adolescents scored lower on the Self-Perception Profile for Children then obese Australian male adolescents (Strauss, 2000).

The Profile found that obese adolescents were twice as likely to view themselves as “incapable” or “incompetent” when it came to sports, beauty and self-worth then those of “normal” or “average” weight. In other words, one out of three obese boys felt that they lacked ability when it came to sports, physical appearance and/or self-worth, while two out of three obese females felt that they were incapable in those areas.

Parental Influence

A child’s perception of weight and obesity are significantly influenced by their parents’ perception of weight and obesity. In other words, children’s view of themselves relies heavily on how they think their parents perceive them. If an obese child’s parents are accepting and/or encouraging towards heavier weights then the child will more than likely grow up with a healthier perception of themselves in the Ares of athletic ability, physical appearance, self-esteem and self-worth then those that grow up in homes where weight is a major factor. In homes where the obese child is criticized, stigmatized or ostracized for his/her weight, self-esteem and self-worth tends to be lower.

Important research findings form the last two decades:

  • Obese children tend to have a lower self-esteem than “normal” or “average” weight children, but having a lower self-esteem does not necessarily make these children emotionally disturbed or depressed.
  • Obese children that have parents that constantly criticize and shun them tend to have the lowest self-esteem.
  • The way an obese child sees his weight is a major factor in his/her level of self-esteem and happiness. In other words, obese children who see themselves as just a little overweight or who are satisfied with their weight tend to have a healthier self-esteem and level of competence then those who feel that they are significantly overweight or obese.
  • The correlation between childhood obesity and self-esteem is stronger in obese girls (children and adolescents) then in obese boys (children and adolescents). In other words, obese females tend to have more concerns about their appearance, perception and weight then obese males.
  • One recent study on childhood obesity and self-esteem found that obese African American children (ages 8 and older) were more likely to experience a lower-level of self-esteem, then obese African American children (ages 5-7) (Franklin, Denyer, Steinbeck, Caterson & Hill, 2006).

References:

Franklin, J., Denyer, G., Steinbeck, K., Caterson, I. D., & Hill, A. J. (2006). Obesity and risk of low self-esteem: A statewide survey of Australian children. Pediatrics, 118(5), 2481-2487.

Kaplan, K. M., & Wadden, T. A. (1986). Childhood obesity and self-esteem. The Journal of Pediatrics, 109(2), 367-370.

Strauss, R. S. (2000). Childhood obesity and self-esteem. Pediatrics, 105(1), 15.

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