Little research has been performed to examine patient perceptions of weight-related language, especially related to childhood obesity. In this study we assessed parental perceptions of weight-based terminology used by health care providers to describe a child's excess weight and assessed perceived connotations associated with these terms including stigma, blame, and motivation to reduce weight.
A national sample of American parents with children aged 2 to 18 years (N = 445) completed an online survey to assess their perceptions of 10 common terms to describe excess body weight in youth (including “extremely obese,” “high BMI,” “weight problem,” “unhealthy weight,” “weight,” “heavy,” “obese,” “overweight,” “chubby,” and “fat”). Parents were asked to use a 5-point rating scale to indicate how much they perceived each term to be desirable, stigmatizing, blaming, or motivating to lose weight.
Regression models revealed that the terms “weight” and “unhealthy weight” were rated as most desirable, and “unhealthy weight” and “weight problem” were rated as the most motivating to lose weight. The terms “fat,” “obese,” and “extremely obese” were rated as the most undesirable, stigmatizing, blaming, and least motivating. Parents' ratings were consistent across sociodemographic variables, body weight, and child's body weight.
The results of this study have important implications for the improvement of health care for youth with obesity; it may be advantageous for health care providers to use or avoid using specific weight-based language during discussions about body weight with families. Pediatricians play a key role in obesity prevention and treatment, but their efforts may be undermined by stigmatizing or offensive language that can hinder important discussions about children's health.