Home The "Study" Guide Sound Off: Guess What Fuels Weight Bullying?

Sound Off: Guess What Fuels Weight Bullying?

by Erika Nicole Kendall
Guess what fuels weight bullying?

I’d write more of an intro to this, but my eyes have rolled down the street and around the corner… presumably to buy me some carrots.

I could’ve been told them this.

[…] Nearly three-quarters of respondents said that schools and anti-bullying policies need to address the issue, with many calling it a “serious” or “very serious” problem.

Yet most state anti-bullying laws don’t protect overweight children, said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford and the lead author of the report, the first cross-national study investigating weight-based bullying, published in Pediatric Obesity.

There are no federal laws that guarantee equal treatment of people who are overweight or obese.

“It is actually legal to discriminate on the basis of weight, and that sends a message that bias, unfair treatment or bullying of overweight children is tolerable,” Dr. Puhl, a professor of human development and family studies at UConn, said.

As obesity rates have risen, she said, so much emphasis has been placed on taking personal responsibility for body weight and changing behaviors “that there is a perception that these youth are somehow to blame for their weight and in some way deserve this treatment.”

“There’s also a widespread misperception that stigma may not be such a bad thing, and that maybe criticism will get people motivated to lose weight,” Dr. Puhl said. In fact, she said, the opposite is true: People who are picked on because of their weight often engage in unhealthy behaviors. Students who are teased for being fat in gym class, for example, often start skipping P.E. to avoid being bullied.

This is why I’m such an advocate for leaving people the hell alone – the teasing and, ultimately, shaming only pushes people to find reprieve in other less-social methods of self-comfort, usually food, because the shaming is what drives people to isolation – they start to feel like the negativity is a shared sentiment, therefore they just have to avoid people period. And, as someone who picked up her emotional eating habit around age 9, I assure you it can start pretty young.

At least 70 percent of participants in all of the countries perceived weight-based bullying to be a common problem, with 69 percent characterizing it as a “serious” or even “very serious” problem. While about half of respondents listed “being fat” as the most common reason children are picked on, fewer than 21 percent in any country listed race, ethnicity or nationality as the most common reason. Fewer than 15 percent listed sexual orientation, fewer than 12 percent listed physical disability and fewer than 6 percent listed religion or academic ability.

About three-quarters of participants across countries said schools should make efforts to raise awareness about weight-based bullying and implement policies that protect overweight kids, and supported bolstering anti-bullying laws to address weight-based bullying.

Support for a more active government role was weaker among Americans, however, with only half saying the government should play a more active role and only 47 percent supporting a federal law to prohibit weight-related bullying.

Raise your hand if you’re surprised by this.

The politically correct movement doesn’t seem to have touched body weight,” said Deborah Carr, chair of the sociology department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “Weight stigma is the most acute among upper middle class educated people, which is the population that cherishes the lean physique the most.”

View the entire study here.

I think that weight-related bullying is complex, and only becomes more so as you age. I feel like, in children, there should be adequate protections against weight-related bullying, and we as adults should be mindful of how we talk about weight in front of our kids because they’re little obnoxious sponges who sop up everything and eventually spit it all back out. They learn to perpetuate stigma from us.

As adults, though, I feel like we should become more adept at practicing the ancient art of telling folks to “mind their damn business,” and that goes both ways – regardless of your size, you have the right to choose what size you’re going to be, and you have the right to decide for yourself who you want to have those kinds of conversations with. The problem, in many instances, is that lots of differently-sized folks don’t understand that, and subject themselves to what I refer to as “big girl guilt,” thinking that because they’re a size they don’t want to be, they should have to listen to everyone‘s bad advice about how they should change, with the implication that they “obviously” need changing.

Honestly, to hell with all that.

The bullying starts young for so many, and it’s often done by people we love. We grow up thinking that the “tough love”-centered approach is how we communicate our concern to our loved ones, and grow to expect and accept it as we age, regardless of what it does to our self-esteem in both our teenage and adult years. The truth, however, is that any person who truly cares about you will also believe your feelings need to be considered when talking to you about something that involves your well being, instead of willfully and intentionally trying to play on your own pain to make you act how they think you should. One is about empathy and providing support; the other is about manipulating you into action.

I think we all need to keep our mouths shut about other people’s bodies and only discuss our own with people we love and trust to treat us with care, but I also acknowledge the complexity of identifying bullying and shaming situations.

That being said, I’m curious – do YOU have a story where you felt someone was trying to make you feel bad about your size? Do you have a story where someone was trying to manipulate you instead of support you in your endeavors? Do you think weight and size should be included in the list of protected classes and, if so, in what instances would it help?

For more discussion of size shaming,

What do you think?

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2 comments

Makiya J. August 18, 2015 - 5:02 PM

I believe that awareness for bullying period should be advertised just as much as they advertise most things we see on t.v. Me being a teen in my third year in high school, I have and still see plenty of bullying going on. Most people at my school think it’s okay to laugh at someone simply because they don’t have a certain look or a certain hair type or style and especially when kids are bigger than the ‘normal weight’, and I believe they do this because they aren’t taught any better at home, at school, and/or social media. And this can cause a lot of teens to attempt or commit suicide or have even worse emotional imbalances on top of crazy hormones. And of course, I have the power to step up and say something, but being at the school I’m at, those who seem to want to be ignorant take my corrections as a threat or ignore me all together. So I think there should be a change globally on how people perceive being overweight and bullying those who are overweight.

niksmit August 22, 2015 - 6:01 PM

Yes, I was often made to feel bad about my size as a child. I was teased by children and adults alike. According to my pediatrician and every doctor I had through my 20s, I was slightly underweight (no longer an issue in my 30s). I reacted to this during the vulnerable middle school years by trying to gain weight by eating “fattening” foods. This only led to a report of underweight AND high cholesterol at my annual physical.

I do think that weight should be a protected class because people feel too free to speak about other people’s bodies. My physical health was negatively affected by what I consider relatively light teasing about my weight. I can only imagine what weight-based bullying does to both mental and physical health. I’m sure measures to end it could contribute to healthier children.

I was also bullied (sustained verbal and physical harassment/attacks) as a child. I had multiple bullies for reasons only they know for sure, but I didn’t feel that my weight was the main issue in that. I believe it primarily negatively affected my mental health.

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