Although childhood obesity may have detrimental consequences for childhood self-esteem, the prevalence and magnitude of this problem is controversial. In addition, the social and emotional effects of decreased self-esteem in obese children are unknown.
A total of 1520 children, 9 to 10 years of age, born to mothers in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth were studied. Comprehensive demographic data including race and family income were available in 97% of the cohort. Self-esteem was measured using Self-Perception Profile for Children. The 4-year follow-up Self-Perception Profile for Children scores were available in 79% of the children. Obesity was defined as a body mass index greater than the 95th percentile for age and gender. Additional data include a self-administered questionnaire at 13 to 14 years of age concerning emotional well being, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Data were stratified by race and gender. The data were weighted to reflect a nationally representative sample of children born to mothers 17 to 28 years of age.
Scholastic and global self-esteem scores were not significantly different among 9- to 10-year-old obese and nonobese children. However, over the 4-year period, obese Hispanic females and obese white females showed significantly decreased levels of global self-esteem compared with nonobese Hispanic females and nonobese white females, respectively. Mild decreases in self-esteem also were observed in obese boys compared with nonobese boys. As a result, by 13 to 14 years of age, significantly lower levels of self-esteem were observed in obese boys, obese Hispanic girls, and obese white girls compared with their nonobese counterparts. Decreasing levels of self-esteem in obese children were associated with significantly increased rates of sadness, loneliness, and nervousness compared with obese children whose self-esteem increased or remained unchanged. In addition, obese children with decreasing levels of self-esteem over the 4-year period were more likely to smoke and drink alcohol compared with obese children whose self-esteem increased or remained unchanged.
Obese Hispanic and white females demonstrate significantly lower levels of self-esteem by early adolescence. In addition, obese children with decreasing levels of self-esteem demonstrate significantly higher rates of sadness, loneliness, and nervousness and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking or consuming alcohol.