Bullying in school affects the child emotionally, but weight related bullying can negatively impact the way children preceive their own bodies.
The study is one of the first to specifically examine the impact of weight-based criticism on pre-adolescents, also hints that the practice can cause other health and emotional issues for its victims.
Advertisement"We tend to think of adolescence as the time when kids become sensitive about their body image, but our findings suggest that the seeds of body dissatisfaction are actually being sown much earlier," said Timothy D. Nelson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the study's lead author.
"Criticism of weight, in particular, can contribute to issues that go beyond general problems with self-esteem," he added.
For the study, the researchers surveyed hundreds of public school students whose average age was 10.8 years.
They collected participants' heights and weights and calculated their Body Mass Index, then examined the relationships between weight-related criticism and children's perceptions of themselves.
Their results showed that overweight pre-teens who endured weight-based criticism tended to judge their bodies more harshly and were less satisfied with their body sizes than students who weren't teased about their weight.
The effects of weight-based teasing were significant even when researchers removed the effects of students' BMI from their analysis in an attempt to separate the relative contributions of physical reality and children's social interactions to their body perceptions, said Nelson.
Researchers said the results should be a signal for more early identification and intervention efforts at schools, because children who develop such negative views of their bodies are at higher risk for internalising problems, developing irregular eating behaviours and ongoing victimization.
"In a way, weight-related criticism is one of the last socially acceptable forms of criticism. There's often a sense that overweight people 'deserve' it, or that if they are continually prodded about their weight, they'll do something about it," said Nelson.
"In fact, our research suggests that this kind of criticism tends to increase the victim's body dissatisfaction, which has been shown to be a factor in poorer outcomes with paediatric weight management programs. It becomes something of a vicious cycle," he added.
The study notes that children's views of their bodies are a complex interaction between physical reality and socially influenced perceptions.
Peer criticism about weight is an important social factor that could affect how pre-adolescents interpret the physical reality of their bodies, said Nelson.