August 8, 2006

Family’s weight comments cause girls lasting harm

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Girls whose families criticize
their weight or eating habits may develop lasting problems with
body image and self-esteem, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that of 455 college women with poor body
image, more than 80 percent said their parents or siblings had
made negative comments about their bodies during childhood.

Many believed the comments reflected a general lack of love
and support or were even part of a pattern of emotional abuse
-- with some saying family members also called them "ugly,"
"stupid" or "lazy."

But in more cases than not, the women said their parents or
siblings had only occasionally made comments about their weight
and body shape.

"The data suggest that even a few comments may have a
negative impact," the study authors report in the journal
Pediatrics.

"In fact, in otherwise or generally supportive families, a
few negative comments may have a particularly detrimental
impact, because they stand out against patterns of little or no
criticism," write the researchers, led by Dr. C. Barr Taylor of
Stanford Medical Center in California.

Parents, they say, need to be aware that their words can
have lasting effects on how their daughters feel about
themselves.

All of the women in the study were part of a larger project
looking at eating disorder prevention; they were considered to
be at high risk based on their excessive worries about their
weight, shape and eating habits. At the start of the study,
they all completed a battery of surveys, including ones that
asked about hurtful comments during childhood and current
levels of self-esteem.

Most of the women said that family members had made some
negative remarks about their bodies. Based on their reports,
more than half of mothers had made such comments, as had
roughly 40 percent of fathers and 40 percent of brothers and
sisters.

Women whose parents had said these things showed relatively
lower self-esteem and felt a lack of support from their
families.

According to Taylor and colleagues, parents who are worried
about their daughter's weight and health need to find ways to
give "constructive advice" about healthy eating and exercise
without being critical.

It's also important for parents to lead by example,
following a balanced diet, getting regular exercise and
refraining from criticizing their own bodies, according to the
researchers. Stanford University has a pamphlet with advice for
parents that can be downloaded from
http://bml.stanford.edu/mcknight.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, August 2006.