Weight-based Bullying is the Most Common Form of Bullying in Youth
By Kasey Goodpaster, PhD
As rates of childhood obesity rise, so too are reports of weight-based stigma, bullying, and discrimination. Studies have shown that children as young as five years old are aware of biases toward people with obesity, and generally begin to express it themselves. In fact, by sixth grade, children rank children with obesity as less desirable playmates than children with various disfigurements, blindness, and other disabilities. Weight-based bullying begins in younger children and increases through the high school years; over 60% of high school students with overweight report being bullied due to their weight. Rates are higher among children with more severe obesity.
Where do these biases come from? One needs to look no further than popular children’s television shows, movies, and video games, all of which offer countless examples of people with obesity being portrayed as mean, greedy, evil, unintelligent, unhealthy, and a host of other negative, inaccurate stereotypes. Further, children are observant of adults’ verbal and non-verbal behavior; if parents and other adults harbor bias toward people with obesity, children are quick to pick up even subtle cues that are unintentionally communicated.
In childhood, weight bias is communicated in a variety of harmful ways ranging from non-verbal slights, snubs, and smirks to physical aggression. For boys, bullying more often manifests as physical harm, whereas girls are more likely to be ostracized and be the victims of rumors. The rise of cyberbullying in recent years adds yet another forum for harassment, and because of the pervasiveness of social media, children have no respite from bullying even when they are away from school.
The consequences of weight-based bullying cannot be overstated. Though bullies sometimes claim that their teasing helps to motivate children with obesity to lose weight, research suggests that the opposite is true. Bullying has been linked to overeating and reduced physical activity, perhaps in response to the emotional toll of discrimination. Furthermore, weight-based bullying is linked to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lower quality of life, social isolation, and even suicidality. Clearly, weight-based bullying is a serious concern, and adults play a vital role in prevention and intervention.
Adults should be aware of the language they use and avoid negative commentary about weight, including their own appearance. The focus should be on fostering healthy and activity patterns, rather than on losing weight or improving appearance. Adults should also adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for bullying and strive to create an inclusive culture in schools and communities at large. Finally, victims of bullying should be treated with compassion, be connected with any needed mental health resources, and be invited to actively participate in efforts to create a safer, more inclusive environment. For more resources on bullying prevention and intervention, visit http://www.obesityaction.org/.