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Health and weight (young people)

When weight becomes a problem

Many young people we talked to first became aware of their weight becoming a problem during puberty. Steevie who described herself as ‘underweight’ in primary school thought that her body became just too ‘visible’ when in secondary school:

"… I just kind of hit puberty and it went right to my hips, and my bust and it was just like when you are in school, and you’re in a white shirt, and eugh, it was just too noticeable."
 
People probably become more aware of the way they look during puberty because it’s a time when the body goes through a lot of changes. One of these changes is fat starts to be stored in different  places on the body. In girls, fat starts to settle around the hips, buttocks, thighs and upper arms. In boys it settles around their waist and belly. As body shape changes, an increase in weight can be embarrassing for both boys and girls alike. 
 
On this page we look at what happened when young people first realised their weight had become a problem (though not everyone saw their weight as a bad thing; see Feeling good about yourself). 
 
Not everyone had started life as ‘big’, though some described themselves as having been ‘chubby’ or ‘big boned’ since childhood. One mother said her daughter had always eaten too much even when she was a baby. Others used to be slim, then started to gain weight when they reached puberty. A few people had specific medical problems (e.g. polycystic ovary syndrome) which affected their weight (see Health problems associated with being overweight).

 

Rachael can't remember ever being thin.

Rachael can't remember ever being thin.

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Well my name's Rachel and I'm eighteen, and I can't remember a single point in my life that I've been thin - I've always been a chunky little kid.  It’s very, very, very early that I was a normal size. I've always been an unhealthy size and that's always been quite apparent especially like to family and family friends and stuff like that. So especially like as I was younger they'd go like “Oh well, you've lost weight” and they’d see that as a positive thing. But I guess a lot of the time, my Mum was like “Ah you've lost weight you can have a biscuit.” But, yeah, so I've always been big, and for the majority of the time it hasn't been that much of a problem – like I never got really badly bullied due to my weight or anything like that. I mean obviously you get the odd person who likes to give a dig at you but you know it's just expected.  
 
That is definitely a word that I’d use to describe myself, ‘obese’. Especially like because when I went to go to the dieticians when I was younger, because of the way it works and it’s all in like a big wave. When you’d marked me on it, I’d be nearly off the scale, when I was a kid. So you know it’s kind of… that’s something that I’ve always remembered that I have always been ridiculously obese.And to be honest I don’t know even if I lost weight, I’d still think myself as obese, because it is something that I have always been associated with.You know. There’s being ‘overweight’ and there’s being ‘obese’. And I know I’m obese. You know. There’s no two ways about it to be honest.   
 
I once did get a compliment because - I can’t remember what we were talking about – but he said… and I went, “Oh yeah, well that’s because I’m really fat.” And he went, “From where I’m from, you’d be thin.” I was like.... [but] he meant that as a compliment. And I thought, “Okay.” But you know it’s just something that you do. I do consider myself to be obese. And I think I’d have to lose a fair bit of weight just to be considered overweight.  
 
 

Alex started put on weight at the age of ten, having been quite small before, and doesn't know why. (Animated clip).

Alex started put on weight at the age of ten, having been quite small before, and doesn't know why. (Animated clip).

Age at interview: 14
Sex: Female
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Did you say that you’d had a problem with your weight for quite a long time?
 
Not really. I know. I used to be, I were premature. So I was little for my age and size. And then like when I got to about 10 like I started putting weight on. And I always, like quite a lot of studies and stuff of all the universities and things like that for like your weight, because I were premature, and bones and things. So like, I don’t know, I just started putting weight on when I was like 10 years old. And then it just… I used to be able to drop my weight and one month, and then the next month I’d put it back on. And it were just weird and things. But I don’t know really. Then I just stayed the one size and then I noticed, realised that I did have a problem.
 
And do you know why you started to gain that weight when you were about 10?
 
No. Because I just used to think, “I eat the same as my mum and dad, and I eat the same as my friends. So why have I got, why am I putting weight on?” Then I come to SHINE and realised about like metabolisms and how everybody’s different, and things like that. So it’s helped to realise that.


 

 

Sometimes Sami feels happy with her size but other times she wants to lose weight. She says it must be her own decision.

Sometimes Sami feels happy with her size but other times she wants to lose weight. She says it must be her own decision.

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I realise you know I’m quite chunky all over but that’s what makes me ‘me’. And no matter I’ve been on every single diet known to man, for the entirety of my life trying to make myself slim, but to be honest that just makes me really unhappy because I’m always calorie-counting, always looking at packets, and everybody else is just there enjoying. They can eat as many burgers as they like, I only have to look at a slice of cake or a burger, and I put on about a stone. It’s just the way that our family works, everyone in our family is large, I just have to accept that, you know, the amount of fruit and veg I eat is also important, I suppose, but no matter what I eat I’m always me, and I know I’ve got a big tummy and a huge arse, but, you know, that’s me, and somebody loves me for it so, I don’t have to change for anyone now.
 
Do you want to try to reduce your weight?
 
Absolutely yeah, I mean there are some days when I absolutely hate… I look in the mirror and think, “Oh my God. You need to lose some weight girl.” And there are some days when I think, “Oh, you look quite cuddly today.” You know? And I do want to lose some weight, but I want to do it in a healthy way, I don’t want to lose it by starving myself. Like I’m just, you know, increasing fruit and veg, I’m increasing my exercise levels, you know, instead of slobbing about in bed all the time, I just get up and do something, you know, but it would be me choosing to do that instead of somebody telling me to do it.

Everyone seemed to understand that weight gain happens because of overeating and not taking enough exercise, but many made the point that personal and emotional issues had contributed to their weight problems (see Ideas about causes of weight problems).
 
Bullying affected many young people we met because it dented their confidence and made them feel alone, isolated from others. Food was always ‘there’ when things went wrong or life changed in some way. Life changes could also affect young people’s weight, for instance parents splitting up or a death in the family (see Bullying). Several young people we spoke to had moved to the UK from overseas which had unsettled them and disrupted their eating and exercise habits.

 

Becca knew that she was bigger than everyone else from the age of three. She started to eat more because she was being bullied.

Becca knew that she was bigger than everyone else from the age of three. She started to eat more because she was being bullied.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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From as long as I can remember really, you know I’ve got memories of like, you know when you are younger and kids play about and stuff? And it wasn’t necessarily harmful but it was always I was bigger than all the other kids kind of thing, not that much bigger, just you know, bigger than average. And maybe that is where it started, I was only a slightly bit bigger but then because of the way that I was treated by other people then it, it got worse and worse and worse kind of thing so yeah I would say maybe from like three or four years old probably I’ve probably been overweight which I know is quite drastic isn’t it really to be that young? But yeah, not, not like hugely, I mean you can see in the pictures I’m just slightly bigger, like, you know, quite fuller and things like that so, yeah, yeah I mean, yeah three or four years old I would probably say.

I’ve always been overweight from when I can remember, like a young age, and I would now put it down to I saw food as a comfort but then I don’t, but then it’s hard to say, you know, because I’ve always been overweight ever since I can remember so it’s, you know, I can’t say that it was being bullied that made me over-eat or things like that because it was from a very young age. I mean yeah like being bullied definitely a huge factor because you just get into like a circle of you are bullied because you are fat so you eat for comfort, and then you get bullied again and round and round and round so it just, yeah that that was basically the whole, that’s where it, like the peak of it kind of started. And yeah I have always been uncomfortable about it, always.

 

When Carrie moved to the UK from Africa, everything felt overwhelming and ‘scary’ and she started to put on weight.

When Carrie moved to the UK from Africa, everything felt overwhelming and ‘scary’ and she started to put on weight.

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Well, I recently moved to the UK from Africa, and it was three years ago now. And just then I was happy with the weight I was when I was in Africa. But when I first came to the UK, I put on a lot of weight, possibly because of kind of stress and a new country, new experiences. I was, it was, I’d never even, I’d only ever been on holiday once, so everything was like new and overwhelming and scary.  And I struggled to make friends at the beginning. So that sort of thing was kind of horrible. And I think putting on a lot of weight before then was just sort of part of it.  And as I gradually, now that I’m starting to make friends and get to know people, and sort of finding out about different activities and the sort of thing I can get involved in, I do a lot more exercise now. Because I know that I enjoy doing sports. But when I first started we couldn’t do anything because I didn’t know what there was. So I spent the first two weeks in the UK literally at home doing nothing, because there wasn’t anything, I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going.

Several young people said they were overweight because of cultural and family traditions which encouraged them to eat very large quantities of food they didn’t need or particularly want. Several parents we talked to felt guilty about their children’s weight problems and believed they, as parents, had made mistakes with their children’s eating habits.
 

Dee wonders if she should have stopped her daughter getting into the habit of eating too much.

Dee wonders if she should have stopped her daughter getting into the habit of eating too much.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I think she was always a big girl, I mean she wasn’t a big baby, she was only what 7lbs 10ozs, that’s not huge, I mean it was huge for me because I’m quite small, but I know she was a caesarean birth and she was too big for me, but within the first six months of her life she’d gone up to about a stone.

She just was greedy really, she just drunk and drunk she just, you know, always filled herself up a lot, as it were, so she was always big. And I think I personally, I don’t think I got it under control I think I probably should have done a lot more a lot sooner in terms of her weight, I should have had a bit more control over it, but I think we always thought, “Oh she’s only a baby she’ll grow out of it, it will be fine, she’ll be okay”, and that, so we just fed her and we just continued to keep, you know, feeding this big appetite that she had, not thinking that actually we were actually fuelling a big problem for later on.

We allowed her to eat too much right from day one and so I have to hold my hand up to that, we did allow her to eat too much and so therefore she’s got into that sort of pattern. She was already brought up on that pattern of overeating and of filling herself up in that way, not having any sort of restrictions put on the amount that she could actually sort of, you know, nobody saying to her well actually you don’t need that much you know, nobody needs that much, stop eating that - she was never told that.

 

Reg says that half her family is overweight so all she can do is try her best.

Reg says that half her family is overweight so all she can do is try her best.

Age at interview: 13
Sex: Female
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Well, I've always been an overweight kid. So my mum's always referred me to the doctors.
 
And when you say you've always been overweight, how far back would you say?
 
Since about four or five. I think.
 
How did you know that you were overweight? What made you think you were overweight?
 
Well, I was bigger than the other kids at school. And I couldn't really fit into the right size clothes and stuff like that. And then I used to get bullied sometimes as well. So, that's just what let it on.
 
I've always liked eating vegetables, so we didn't really understand why I was overweight. And I did quite a lot of exercise as well because I used to go dancing nearly every day of the week. So, we just really didn't understand.
 
Have you got an ideas about what made you overweight?
 
No not really. I know it sounds funny but I think it's genetic because half of my family, half of my family on my mum’s side are overweight. And all the women on my dad’s side are overweight. So.
 
So you think it's just in you genes that...?
 
I think so yeah.
 
So do you think there's anything you can do about it then in that case?
 
Just try my best.
 
 

Caribbean food and cooking is important to Steevie's family.

Caribbean food and cooking is important to Steevie's family.

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On Sundays we’d always go down to my Grandma’s house and it would be big Caribbean cooked foods, so there would be about three different meats, about two or three different rices, like there’d be like a vegetable rice, and a plain rice and then like a curried rice. And loads of side dishes, like, and then there’d be starters and huge desserts, and my whole family bakes, including me, and my family’s is ginormous, like my Mum has six sisters and my Dad has two sisters and five brothers, so everybody, like it was just tradition, everyone makes a dish and carries it.
 
And I love baking, I’ve probably got that from my Aunt and my Grandma who taught me, so we’d always be making loads and loads of desserts. And in the weekdays as well, I’d come home and, it was like a little thing, me and my big brother and Mum used to always bake and she’d let us like lick out the dough and the mixtures and stuff, and it seems really fun now but when you look back and think how unhealthy that was, it was shocking. But yeah, so it was always loads of Caribbean foods when we were at home. It was like just kind of normal meals, but huge portions and like, if we did well at school we’d always have a big meal where the whole family would come over to celebrate or, again with birthdays, anything, any excuse there’d be some kind of big massive party with food to go along with it. 
Most people said that they didn’t notice how much weight they had gained at first. Ella for example realised she was too large when she couldn’t buy clothes from high street shops. Others only realised they had become either too big or larger than others their age when people pointed it out. Some said they knew they were too heavy but friends and family were also overweight and put pressure on each other to stay the same weight. 
 

Ella’'s weight crept up over many years but she didn'’t do anything about it until she couldn'’t fit into high street clothes.

Ella’'s weight crept up over many years but she didn'’t do anything about it until she couldn'’t fit into high street clothes.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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Well yeah I started putting on weight sort of gradually over my childhood and that slowly built up until this summer, so this summer gone so about a year ago, when I decided to sort of do something about it. And my family had been wanting me to do something about it. And I guess I’d sort of, I’d sort of convinced myself that I was happy the way I was and so on, and but I’d got to sort of the stage where I, I wasn’t fitting in sort of high street, high street, you know like Topshop and so on, where a size 16 was sort of, you know, on the tight side, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do something about it.
 
I was never a sort of a skinny child like some of my friends were. I was always sort of a bit chubby, and every time I went on holiday and things like that, I put on a bit more weight and so on. And I guess it just gradually built up, and you don’t notice it as much, it wasn’t like I had a period where I put on an extreme amount of weight, I just sort of slowly put it on. And didn’t really lose it, and if I ever did sort of try and go on a diet or something then I didn’t really lose much, and sort of lost interest, so it was only really this year that I succeeded on staying on a diet as such. Yeah I mean it was, it was just it was really gradual over, over my childhood. I don’t really know, you know, when I started noticing that it was an issue for me or something.
 

Anaan says that, in her experience, black girls often get criticised by their peer group when they lose weight.

Anaan says that, in her experience, black girls often get criticised by their peer group when they lose weight.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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Anaan' Well when we, when I was younger anyway, and one thing I found around being black myself and being from an ethnic minority, people always, it’s not even just other people, its people who are black, always say, “Oh yes. Black girls are bigger. They’ve always got big bums.” You know what I mean?
 
Naz' It’s true
 
Anaan' It sounds bad but they always say, white girls tend to be skinny, but black girls usually are bigger. That’s just the way you’re built. So that for me, it’s harder when you’re black to realise you know, that you’re actually bigger then normal. Because it always seems, you will always be, what’s your problem? Do you know what I mean. That’s just the way you are. There’s nothing wrong with you.
 
Naz' We all come in different shapes and sizes.
 
Anaan' All black girls are like that, do you know what I mean? Usually its black girls who are skinny get criticised, “What’s wrong with you, don’t you eat?” Do you see what I mean? So being bigger, its like, “Oh you’re normal. What’s wrong with that anorexic girl?” Do you know it’s that kind of thing. So for you to realise you know, what actually I am big, there is something I need to do about this because it’s getting to the point where I am too big. It’s hard because people don’t really want you to see that you have a problem. And I find that usually other black girls usually don’t want you to realise that, because you’re going to go and do something about it. And that makes them look lazy or fat or whatever. They all want you to stay the same, because then they’ll all look okay, whereas if one of you goes and somebody goes really slim, then it’s kind of like, ‘oh what’s she done that for? Ner ner ner ner ner.’ There’s a lot more, I don’t know, it just seems to me there’s a lot more bitching when it comes to…because in a way, you’re expected to stay big, do you know what I mean?
Young people said they found it incredibly hurtful when people made comments about their weight such as ‘you’re too fat’ or ‘you’ve put on too much weight’. They also disliked it when parents and friends brought up the subject of their weight or appearance and when it became a subject of general conversation.
 
Young people talked about how they got different messages about food as they were growing up. Some had been given lots of sweets and cakes when they were younger (usually by grandparents), but were then criticised for eating those things once they were older. Several had been told as children that their weight was nothing more than ‘puppy fat’ which would disappear over time.
 

Steevie’s grandmother called her ‘my chubby princess’ until she suddenly changed her mind one day and said Steevie was 'too big'.

Steevie’s grandmother called her ‘my chubby princess’ until she suddenly changed her mind one day and said Steevie was 'too big'.

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Yeah, right from when I was a baby. I mean all the children in my family have been about 9lbs and over at birth. And I was no exception, I was about 9lb 4. My youngest sister she was 6lbs, and we all thought she was ill, everyone was like, “Oh my God there’s something wrong!” But no, she was just a normal child. But yeah, all the children in our family have always just been big. And my cousin’s probably the only one that’s now kind of come down and she’s about a size 12. But the rest of us are all 16, 18 and above. So yeah that’s kind of how it is. My little sister’s quite small, but then she’s always been small, from birth she’s always been quite small so.
 
So in terms in terms of in your family you fit in size-wise if you like?
 
Yeah. I mean I did fit in pretty much all the way until I got to about 15 then all of a sudden my Grandma was like, “No that’s too big now. You need to go down.” But it was literally instant, it was, all of my life up to 15 I was the cute chubby princess like my Grandma called me, and then literally one day I went round there and suddenly I was too big, and it was the opposite. “Oh you’re too big, you’ve got to lose weight, it’s too much, de da de da.” From then onwards, so it was kind of, I think it was like a conflict, like a conflict in my mind, and it was like, “What happened, what changed? When did I suddenly got over that barrier? When was big not good enough anymore?”
 

Daniel remembers being told he would 'grow into his weight'.

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Daniel remembers being told he would 'grow into his weight'.

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Well like looking back on old photos I can see I was slightly overweight, but I think everyone was just like, ‘Oh it’s only when he’s younger, he’ll like grow into his weight and things.’ And then I obviously didn’t and then with all the things from school it was like a vicious circle where the more they said the more I ate.
 
I think on my first assessment I was around 12 stone. And then after my first assessment my Granddad passed away, so that sort of made me put on more weight. So when I first actually started SHINE (Self Help Independence, Nutrition and Exercise) I wasn’t really improving much because I’d had a lot of heartache because they only live across the road, my grandparents, so I saw them every day.
The people we spoke to felt that there was no ‘right way’ for other people to comment on their weight and size.  Being made to feel bad about their weight and size (see Low moods and depression) didn’t help. Young people said it would help to know that they could rely on friends, family and teachers for help and encouragement, rather than just criticism. 

Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated February 2012.

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