For Adolescents, Word Choice Matters When Talking About Body Weight

‘Body weight is a sensitive topic for many youth, and the way that parents talk about it can have an emotional impact’

When it comes to talking about body weight with teens, what words should parents use? A new study from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health offers insights about the terminology for weight that adolescents most prefer, dislike, and have negative emotional reactions to when their parents raise the topic.

Using a national online panel, researchers surveyed 1,936 parents and 2,032 adolescents. Parents were surveyed about what words they use to refer to their child’s weight. Adolescents were asked about their emotional reactions to these words and their preferences for the terminology they want their parents to use to refer to their weight.

“Body weight is a sensitive topic for many youth, and the way that parents talk about it can have an emotional impact on their children,” says Rebecca Puhl from the Rudd Center, and lead author of the study. “Words matter, and we need to understand how youth feel about the words parents use to describe their weight and what words they feel most comfortable with.”

The researchers examined weight communication in racially and ethnically diverse mothers and fathers and adolescent girls and boys, across a range of body sizes. Study findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, show that certain weight-related words lead to emotional distress in adolescents.

Key findings include:

  • Adolescents’ most preferred terms included “healthy weight” and “normal weight.”
  • At least half of adolescents reported that they never want parents to use the terms “obese,” “fat,” “extremely obese,” “plus-size,” “big,” “weight problem,” “large” and “high BMI” to describe their weight.
  • The terms “overweight,” “fat” and “extremely obese” elicited the most negative emotions in adolescents – at least a third felt embarrassment, shame, and sadness when parents used these words to refer to their weight.
  • Girls and sexual minority youth reported more negative emotions in response to weight terminology than boys and heterosexual youth.
  • Emotional reactions to weight terminology were fairly consistent across weight status and race/ethnicity of adolescents, with a few exceptions:
    • The term “thick” was more preferred by Black and Hispanic/Latinx youth, and youth with higher weight.
    • “Curvy” was more preferred by girls, Hispanic/Latinx youth, sexual minority youth, and those with higher weight
  • In some cases, parents reported using words that adolescents don’t feel comfortable with. Fathers reported using weight terms more frequently than mothers, as did Hispanic/Latinx parents compared to White and Black parents.

While study findings show several consistencies in adolescents’ preferred weight terminology, there were also differences in preferences across sex, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and weight status.

“Our findings highlight the need to recognize diversity in adolescent preferences for weight terminology,” says Puhl, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. “By asking adolescents their preferred terms when discussing weight[1]related health, parents can promote more supportive and less stigmatizing communication with their children.”

This study was supported by a grant from WW International, Inc. Study co-authors include Leah Lessard of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut, and Michelle Cardel and Gary Foster of WW International, Inc.

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