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Childhood Teasing May Lead to Eating Disorders

From the WebMD Archives

Reviewed by Dr. Jacqueline Brooks

Oct. 19, 2000 -- Maybe it was just meant in jest, but those negative comments from your best friend or your dad probably still makes you wince. It doesn't matter if it was about your teeth or your weight or your clothes; somewhere in the back of your mind it may still make you psychologically insecure. For some, this can lead to health-damaging eating disorders.

Binge eating, for instance. According to Yale University researchers in an article published recently in the journal Obesity Research, negative comments to a child about his or her general appearance may lead to this eating disorder, which involves eating an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time, or experiencing a loss of control over what and how much food is eaten.

Those who became obese later in life said teasing about their general appearance took its toll on them, too. Women in the study said the general appearance teasing they received focused on how they dressed, or having funny teeth, or being funny looking, or anything about overall appearance, says study co-author Tamara Jackson, MD, a postdoctoral student in the Yale psychiatry department.

Comments more specifically about weight and body size may also cause serious harm. Patients who became obese early in life told the researchers that they were often teased about their weight and size.

The problem doesn't end there. The researchers found that teasing about weight and appearance also impacted other types of eating disorders and on the mental well-being of those subjected to it. And the most harmful teasing often comes from those closest to the person.

"I have many, many patients who were made fun of by coaches at school, or they heard a flippant comment at a dance lesson. Sometimes it's the father commenting that the daughter is gaining weight or the brother teasing the sister that she is overweight," says Demarks Wright, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at Medical City Dallas Hospital. She treats bulimic and anorexic young women.

"If the girl is in love with the person who makes such a comment, it can send her into a tailspin," Wright tells WebMD. "It affects [girls] when they are very young because the desire to be loved is from birth. These comments and the psychological desire to please the person they love is ingrained by the time they are in fifth grade."

"There are precursors to actual development of eating disorders that we can sometimes trace back with treatment," says Welby Pinney, LMFW-ACP, a clinical social worker in Children's Medical Center of Dallas' Center for Pediatric Psychiatry. "People with these diseases have a preoccupation with their appearance. They create a delusional system where they take real stuff and interpret it differently than others would."

Once they start doing this, if anyone says something that fits their delusion, such as telling an anorexic that it looks like he or she has lost a few pounds, then that just reinforces the person's self image thus making him or her continue the behavior, Pinney tells WebMD.

"It's bad enough if it's coming from someone in the back of the room, but if it's coming from some one you're close to, it's devastating," Pinney says.

Wright and Pinney agree that parents need to be educated on how harmful teasing can be and that they need to be the No. 1 supporters of their children, not for being the best but for doing their best. Pinney adds that no one knows which people may be scarred for a lifetime and driven into eating disorders.

"Since eating disorders really start before crystallization of the habit, it's especially hard to avoid contributing to it. So parents need to teach their children that it's not right to tease anyone, because we don't know who the vulnerable kids are," he advises. "We also need to teach kids that if you're being picked on, it's not all right."

Jackson says she and her colleagues hope their study will help clinicians treat people with this disorder by making them investigate the root cause. Although they didn't address exactly how teasing contributes to binging, Wright and other experts say it can contribute to a lifetime of low self-esteem.