The current study is the first to show how teens with higher body weight fare worse in some schools than others depending on the “weight climate” of their middle school. We presumed that heavier body weight becomes more stigmatizing and emotionally consequential in schools where youth observe peers with high weight being excluded and ridiculed (i.e., where weight appears to be “policed” by peers).
Consistent with these predictions, we found that in schools with stronger weight-policing, youth with heavier body weight felt lonelier, and girls with heavier weight also had lower self-esteem. Additionally, boys — regardless of their weight — reported a lower sense of belonging in schools with stronger weight policing.
Why are these findings significant?
Among 10-17-year-olds, the overweight and obesity rates range from 20% to almost 40% across the country. These youth are at high risk for low self-esteem and feeling depressed — in part because they are bullied by their peers. To extend past studies examining the effects of weight-related bullying on individual teens, this study sheds light on the overall weight-climate of the school that can affect all youth, but particularly those with heavy weight who might be fearful of bullying.
The current study provides evidence on the power of middle school environments. In schools with less punitive weight-climate, heavier youth did not report higher levels of loneliness than those with lower body weight. It is important to understand such “environmental effects” on the social and emotional difficulties of teens with higher weight because they are at risk for a range of health problems and weight gain later in life.
Understanding differences between schools also provides insights into possible school-based interventions. Rather than emphasizing individual responsibility for healthy diet and exercise to improve the well-being of youth with higher weight, schools need to focus on bias reduction. This might involve developing curricula promoting weight acceptance and body shape diversity in ways that change the school norms and climate so that that teens with heavy weight do not get bullied. Some other prejudice reduction efforts involve facilitating regular interaction, cooperation, and equal status across youth who vary in their body shapes and weight. Teachers can promote such interactions through their classroom activities (e.g., by assigning students into groups rather than allowing students to form groups).
How was this study conducted?
This study relied on data from a larger, longitudinal study (the UCLA Middle School Diversity Project) of youth recruited from 26 urban, ethnically diverse public middle schools in California.
The sample of 4,086 youth (51% girls) were 30% Latino/a, 22% White, 14% Asian, 11% African American and 23% from other ethnic groups, including biracial and multiethnic. Across 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, students filled out surveys with self-reported weight and height, self-esteem, loneliness, school belonging, and they named grade mates who are bullied. Weight and weight-climate were measured at 7th grade, while emotional wellbeing (i.e., self-esteem, loneliness, and school belonging) were assessed both at 6th and 8th grades to study whether weight climate can predict changes.
We relied on a novel indirect method to capture weight-climate by examining the relationship between weight (BMI) and victim reputation separately in each school. Our findings of the effects of the school weight climate are particularly strong because personal experiences of bullying were taken into account.
These findings are described in the article entitled The effects of middle school weight climate on youth with higher body weight, recently published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. This work was conducted by Jaana Juvonen, Leah M. Lessard, Hannah L. Schacter, and Craig Enders from the University of California, Los Angeles.