Somali teen girl

Weight-based teasing harms youth from immigrant communities in same ways as those from non-immigrant communities

Charlie Plain | July 15, 2019

Research into weight-based teasing among Americans has shown it to be harmful to adolescents and young adults and can lead to higher rates of disordered eating, depression and suicide. However, researchers have not specifically looked at how such teasing may affect youth from immigrant communities where cultural attitudes concerning the body and weight can be different. A new study from the University of Minnesota recently examined the threat of weight-based teasing among youth from immigrant communities in the state and found it harms them as frequently — and in the same ways — as young people from non-immigrant communities.  

Adjunct faculty Marla Eisenberg

Using data from the School of Public Health’s Project EAT, the researchers studied weight-based teasing by family members from three immigrant communities to see if it is connected to several common health problems, including unhealthy weight control behaviors, poor body satisfaction, low self-esteem and depressive symptoms. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

The team analyzed data from 1,577 Project EAT participants who were middle and high school students in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. The sample was restricted to those who identified as Latinx, Hmong or Somali and a white comparison group, as this group has been studied the most in research. 

The study found:

  • weight-based teasing was common across all ethnic groups — up to 43 percent reported being teased by family members about their weight;
  • being teased in this way was associated with higher levels of all four health issues (i.e., unhealthy weight control behaviors, poor body satisfaction, low self-esteem and depressive symptoms) regardless of ethnic group;
  • these relationships between being teased and the health and wellbeing issues were similar regardless of acculturation (i.e., a measure of if participants were born in the U.S., how long they had lived here, and if they speak English in their family home). 

“We were a bit surprised at the consistency of the relationships between family weight-based teasing and the health issues we studied,” says Marla Eisenberg, a professor in the Medical School on the Twin Cities campus and an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Health. “Weight-related terms that are often considered negative in mainstream U.S. culture may be terms of endearment in other languages or communities, so we thought they might not be as hurtful for some groups. However, that is not reflected in these findings.”

“We recommend that health care providers, community leaders, school personnel and others working with immigrant communities use culturally relevant messages to address and prevent weight-based teasing in families,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor in the School of Public Health and co-author of the study.

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