Weighing Words When Talking to Teens About Body Weight

Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD


May 11, 2017

How to Initiate Conversations About Weight

Providers should consider individual differences when talking to youth and adolescents about body size and weight-related health. It is likely that youth who have obesity may have heightened sensitivity to the ways in which others describe their body weight, given their vulnerability to weight-based teasing and bullying.

Using weight-based terminology that youth find preferable and acknowledging that language preferences may be different for girls and boys can help promote positive and productive conversations about health. It may be helpful to initiate the conversation with neutral words and even ask youth and adolescents what words would make them most comfortable (Table 2).

Table 2. Initiating Conversations About Weight With Adolescents

"Would it be okay if we talked about your weight?"

"People have different preferences when it comes to words that describe their body weight."

"What words do you feel most comfortable using to talk about your weight?"

"How are you feeling about your weight?"

"Do you feel that your weight is affecting your health? Your daily activities?"

These questions can be useful for discussions about weight with both youth and adult patients. Evidence-based resources are also increasingly being developed to help providers navigate communication with patients about weight and weight management, such as this tool from the STOP Obesity Alliance.

Ultimately, pediatricians and other healthcare providers play an important role in obesity prevention and treatment and in educating families about weight-related health. Stigmatizing or insensitive language may undermine these efforts and interfere with important health discussions. Instead of making assumptions about weight-based terminology, providers can prevent unintended consequences of language choice by asking youth and parents about the weight-based language that they feel comfortable using in provider-patient conversations.


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