Are rural teens at increased risk for weight stigma?

Researching how rural life influences teen self-assessments

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

A Central Michigan University medical school faculty member wants to know if rural teens are uniquely at risk for the health risks associated with weight stigma.

Samantha Hahn, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine who specializes in population health research, and nutrition and dietetics, will spend the next two years researching how teens living in rural communities experience weight stigma and how that impacts their health.

Weight stigma is not necessarily based on actual weight. It occurs when people are devalued based on their weight, which is driven by society’s unhealthy expectations, Hahn said.

“It can be ‘I feel less than because of my weight,’ or ‘I think less of someone because of their weight’” she said. Everyone is at risk and the stakes are high.

Weight stigma is connected to a lower quality of life, she said. That includes education, career, social interactions, health care and levels of wealth. It also disproportionately affects people with other marginalized identities and in and of itself is a form of discrimination, making it a diversity, equity and inclusion issue, she said.

Whether teens who live in rural communities are at greater risk isn’t known. No one’s studied it, she said.

Hahn plans to survey high school students in their first couple of years about their experiences with weight stigma and then again 18 months later about their health.

One important question is whether risk factors accumulate to compound the problem. It isn’t just a one plus one equals two.

“It could be one plus one equals seven,” she said.

Part of the research will include using dried blood samples to see if students who report weight stigma have associated physical health issues.

Research has connected weight stigma to physical health in adults, Hahn said. Previous studies have demonstrated that people with weight stigma can see changes in blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.

A connection between weight stigma and behavioral issues like disordered eating is well documented between both adults and teens, she said. However, the circumstances of rural communities could increase the risk for rural teens, which makes it an issue worthy of standalone research.

Hahn expects her research project to be complete in 2026.

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