In a surprising study finding, new research has found obese white teenage girls who lose weight may benefit physically, but don’t necessarily feel better about themselves.
The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior by Purdue University researchers, found even normal-weight girls who were once heavy may retain negative body images tied to low self-esteem, despite improvements in their health and appearance.
"We found that obese black and white teenage girls who transitioned out of obesity continued to see themselves as fat, despite changes in their relative body mass," said Dr. Sarah A. Mustillo, a childhood obesity specialist. "Further, obese white girls had lower self-esteem than their normal-weight peers and their self-esteem remained flat even as they transitioned out of obesity."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 17 percent of American children ages 2-19 are obese.
For the new study, researchers examined health records from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study. The health and weight of some 2,000 black and white girls was tracked for 10 years, starting at ages 9 to 10. For this study, the girls were separated into one of three groups – obese, formerly obese and normal weight.
Researchers found self-esteem for black girls who went from being obese to normal weight improved slightly, but white and black girls continued to have negative body perceptions.
More research is needed to understand why girls feel this way, but Mustillo suggested low self-worth may be difficult to shake because society is full of negative stereotypes and messages about obesity.
"Studies show that children internalize stereotypes and negative perceptions of obese people before they ever become obese themselves, so when they do enter that stigmatized state, it affects their sense of self-worth," she said. "Then, whether they are gaining or losing weight, the negative message they have internalized and feelings of worthless may stick with them."