By Sunita Sohrabji

“Many schools have anti-bullying policies in place. But very few of those mention body weight as a risk factor for bullying, despite how prevalent it is in children and adolescents.” –Dr. Rebecca Puhl, University of Connecticut.

Despite a move towards body positivity and acceptance, overweight children continue to be the number one targets for school bullying, and have little recourse with their teachers or school administrators.

About 1 in 5 children in the US are obese by current BMI standards. The statistics for children who experience bullying because of their size is alarming. In a recent national survey of overweight sixth-graders, 24% of the boys and 30% of the girls experienced daily teasing, bullying or rejection because of their size, reports the Obesity Action Clinic. The number doubles for overweight high school students with 58% of boys and 63% of girls experiencing daily teasing, bullying or rejection.

Weight-Based Bullying

Dr. Rebecca Puhl is the Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health and Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Connecticut. She has studied weight stigma and bullying for over 2 decades and has published 180+ studies on weight-based bullying in youth, weight bias in health care and the media, interventions and policy strategies to reduce weight bias, and the impact of weight stigma on emotional and physical health.

“I think it’s helpful to really think about weight stigma both as kind of a social justice issue that we certainly need to be addressing, as well as a public health issue, because it really is negatively impacting the health of of many, many children and adolescents,” said Puhl, in a recent interview with Ethnic Media Services.

Dr. Rebecca Puhl. (UConn photo)

Here are excerpts from the interview:

EMS: Dr. Puhl, what fueled your interest in researching weight-based bullying?

RP: In 1999, there really was very scattered research on the topic of weight stigma. Not a lot of people were doing work in this area. And for me, I was really seeing stigma interfere in the lives of the patients that I was working with. I was seeing how harmful the impact was on adolescents.

We see that kids who have a higher body weight are are more likely to be bullied than kids of lower body weight. And those findings persist across different racial and ethnic backgrounds, across socioeconomic status, across academic achievement and social skills.

How early does this bullying start?

We see negative weight based stereotypes and attitudes emerging in preschoolers. And where do those attitudes come from? Well, if we look at child targeted media, if we look at cartoons and books, and also the messages that they get from parents and other family members, those often reinforce negative attitudes about body weight.

Those assumptions are emerging early on. So by the time kids are in elementary school, the teasing and bullying is is present, and that really continues throughout middle school and high school.

And is the stigma sometimes fueled by principals and teachers themselves?

So I think what’s fair to say is that no one is immune to weight bias: that includes teachers, parents, and healthcare providers. We’ve done some experimental studies where we show teachers pictures of the same adolescents, but their their bodies are modified in the pictures to either appear heavier, or at a lower body weight.

We see that they have lower expectations for the students with with larger bodies, and not just in physical domains, but in cognitive and other academic domains as well.

And what impact does this bullying have on a child’s overall well-being?

We see higher levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, low self esteem, and poor body image. We also see increasing levels of things like substance use and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

And it’s not just psychological well-being. It’s also their physical health. We see that when kids are teased or bullied about weight they often are more likely to engage in maladaptive or disordered eating behaviors like binge eating. They’re more likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism. They are also less likely to engage in physical activity, and one of the reasons for that is physical activity settings tend to be a place where they feel vulnerable to being teased and bullied, whether that’s in a gym class or a sports or athletic kind of environment.

As obesity rates increase, has the social stigma lessened?

Weight stigma looks to be more resistant to change than other forms of societal stigma. We really have our work cut out for us in terms of trying to create a more supportive society that respects people of all body sizes.

We look at people, and they’re assumed that if they have a higher body size or a larger body, that they weren’t working hard enough, that they are lacking in discipline and willpower. Those are kind of the primary negative stereotypes that set the stage.

But then we’ve got the mass media and social media. We’ve got the diet industry, and the fashion industry. We’ve got all of these larger socio-cultural factors that really are reinforcing these negative messages.

How do we support children who are being bullied because of their weight?

We need to be doing a much better job with policy, both at the school level and more broadly at the the state or federal level.

Many schools have anti bullying policies in place. But very few of those mention body weight as a risk factor for bullying, despite how prevalent it is in children and adolescents. And so we really need schools to strengthen their anti bullying policies to include body weight in the language.

Dr. Puhl, how do you see us evolving into a culture in which weight is not stigmatized, especially for children?

We need to see major shifts in the mass media in terms of how they portray and represent people of different body sizes. What we see is that a lot of children’s targeted media continues to promote negative stereotypes about people with larger body sizes. And the other problem is that we just don’t see enough representation: they’re either portrayed in negative ways or they’re not present at all.

There’s a lot that needs to be done with positive representation, and having characters in children’s or adolescent-targeted shows who have larger body sizes, but the storyline does not focus on their body size. These are multi-dimensional people with meaningful stories to tell: weight is not their only story.

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