March 18, 2011 -- Every day teens across America struggle with their body image, with some three percent of U.S. adolescents suffering eating disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Some say the pressure to look fit comes partly from the media, which feed teens a steady diet of perfect-looking actors, models and athletes.
But what would happen if the pressure came from a child's parent instead? Some teens say criticism from parents is part of what makes them feel poorly about their bodies.
"What Would You Do?" wanted to know: What would you do if you saw a parent berating a child for "looking fat" in her bathing suit on the beach? We hired actors to play the belittling mother and her ill-treated teen daughter. They play out the scenario at a boardwalk in Long Beach, N.Y. with our hidden cameras to find out.
'That's Too Skimpy For You'
As our actors head to the boardwalk, our "overweight" teen is immediately hit with her mother's insults.
"Why don't you put your shirt back on? That's too skimpy for you," says Traci, our mean mom.
"Why?" pleads the teen.
"Because you're fat!" our mother replies.
This is the first scene of the day and within minutes a woman nearby, shocked at what she is hearing, talks to our helpless teen directly.
"Let me tell you something. You are beautiful," she says.
Traci tells the woman that the teenager is fat and that the woman should keep her opinion to herself. Surprisingly, the woman agrees that she shouldn't interfere but, as she walks away, she reminds our teen, "You're beautiful and your mother's wrong!"
In another scene, our actress mom continues to insult her teen
"You're fat. You don't need to be walking around like that," she says.
Once again, we find that it doesn't take long for people to intervene.
'Disgusting' Way to Treat a Child
A mother and daughter stop in their tracks, seemingly shocked by what they're hearing.
"You really need to stop treating your child like that. It's disgusting!" yells one woman from across the boardwalk.
"She's not a child, she's fourteen," our mean mom replies.
"It doesn't matter -- you're sick!" she says.
Just then, another woman with her son also confronts Traci, but starts out more calmly.
"Listen, let me tell you something. You're embarrassing her in front of everybody. That's not right. She's gonna kill herself one day and it's gonna be on your butt," says the woman.
As she pleads with Traci to leave her daughter alone, we decide it's time to tell the bystanders about our staged scenario and ask what they think.
"The worst abuse is emotional, verbal abuse, because physical abuse, you can get away with it and make your bruises heal," says the woman who called Traci's behavior "disgusting." "But these words begin to live. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
'Talk in the Privacy of Your Home'
As our actors play out the scene on the boardwalk again, our mom is confronted by a woman who happens to be a fitness instructor.
"At this age you can really define how's she's gonna feel when she gets older," the fitness instructor says. "If you, as her mom, know that she has bad eating habits or something like that, then I might say talk in the privacy of your home."
Our mom tries to excuse her behavior by saying that her daughter "doesn't listen."
When we catch up with the fitness instructor she says, "I hate that anyone would berate their child like that."
With many women confronting our mean mom, we decided to switch things up: Would people react differently when they see a father criticize his son's weight?