Individuals living in larger bodies often report negative and discriminatory weight-based experiences that they experienced in a variety of social environments, including family, medical, workplace or school settings. As such, their parents, spouses, peers, educators, and healthcare professionals can be those who unfairly treat them. For children attending school, this form of mistreatment can be categorized as bullying. Bullying involves an imbalance of power between at least two people (the victim and the bully) and it causes harm, whether it is intentional or not.
Frequency of Weight-Related Bullying Among Children
Stigmatization and negative perception toward individuals with larger bodies is more frequent nowadays. Indeed, among school-age children, the frequency of weight bullying has increased by 41% since 1961. Children as young as three years old can be victims of negatives comments about their weight. Unfortunately, weight-related bullying tends to last and increase throughout the school years, as well as to persist into adulthood. This can be partly understood by a preference for thin rather than larger bodies in children. Additionally, weight-related bullying is fueled by weight bias and stereotypes, through which youth attribute negative characteristics to their peers with larger bodies.
Weight-related bullying is very common in elementary school. Up to 92% of school children report having witnessed discriminatory behaviors related to weight or having heard negative comments about weight. Many youths (27%) are teased about their weight and it is even more common amongst larger bodied children and teenagers. Almost half of the children (34% to 63% of girls and 36% to 58% of boys) and teenagers (45% of girls and 50% of boys) in larger bodies reported having received negative comments concerning their weight. Compared with children considered to be of “normal weight,” those who fall into the overweight and obese categories are more likely to be bullied.
What is Weight-Related Bullying?
To be considered weight-related bullying, the aggressive behaviors or the negative comments must specifically concern and target a person’s body size or weight. Weight-related bullying can be observed as repeated teasing, bullying, harassment, or hostility. It can take the form of verbal comments (for example mean comments, name calling, laughing, and joking about a person’s weight), it can be physical (for example pushing, hitting, kicking), it can also be relational (for example spreading rumors, neglecting or singling out the person), or it can be cyber-messaging (for example, writing negative and hurtful comments about the person’s weight in the social media or via text messages).
Consequences Associated With Weight-Related Bullying
Weight-related bullying is very serious and it can be quite devastating. It may lead to significant negative consequences, such as:
- Loneliness, rejection, and social isolation
- Lower school performance and repeated absenteeism
- Unhealthy or emotional eating
- Reduction in the practice of physical activities and preference for sedentary and lonely activities
- Depressive and anxious symptoms
- Lower self-esteem
- Higher body dissatisfaction
- Weight concerns
- Weight gain
- Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors, such as unhealthy weight control behaviors and overeating behaviors
Experiences of weight-related bullying can have a significant impact on one’s life. Sadly enough, adults who were bullied as children and adolescents are at risk of carrying with them their perceived shame of “not having succeeded in controlling their weight” and of being visibly different. The unequal and discriminatory treatment they experienced when they were younger may even impact their desire to pursue further education and affect their productivity in work.
As far as disordered eating is concerned, we now know that negative and discriminatory comments in childhood and adolescence can lead to the development of bulimic behaviors in adulthood and that the higher the frequency of weight-related bullying experienced, the more severe the bulimic behaviors are. For men and women who experienced weight-related bullying in their teenage years, there is an increased risk of developing binge eating behaviors and loss of control over eating. These individuals also tend to report more binge eating behaviors, unhealthy weight control behaviors, dieting behaviors, and body dissatisfaction than those who have not experienced weight-related bullying. Some will also use weight control behaviors, such as skipping meals or using a meal replacement (protein bar, shake).
The impact of weight-related bullying on eating disorders is particularly important when the bullying comes from peers and family members. In this context, eating can represent a coping strategy as well as a way to comfort or distract oneself from negative experiences or feelings. Although it works in the short run, over time such a coping strategy can lead to weight gain, discomfort, and shame towards one’s body. Those feelings can increase the physical and psychological burden of people who were bullied in childhood and adolescence.
Nature of the Relationship Between Weight-Related Bullying and Eating Disorders
Heavier people are at greater risk of being bullied because of their weight. Following this negative experience, they are more likely to try to lose weight through dieting and excessive exercising. Negatives comments about their weight can further be perceived as hurtful and affect their body image. This accentuates the risk that a heavier person adopts problematic eating behaviors such as restrictive eating, dieting, compensatory behaviors or purging behaviors as a way to lose weight and in order to increase self-worth and body satisfaction. Thus, having negative body image or even feeling disgusted with one’s body creates a vulnerable state that can lead a person to develop unhealthy weight control practices (dieting, restrictive eating, vomiting, inappropriate use of laxatives), problematic eating behaviors, and, ultimately, eating disorders. Importantly, engaging in restrictive eating and dieting to change body shape and size most often ends in the development of binge eating behaviors.
Low self-esteem can play a role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders in people victimized by weight-related bullying. First, having low self-esteem puts individuals at risk of being bullied and of feeling unable to protect themselves from bullying. As a consequence of low self-esteem, they may not seek help when they are victims of bullying. They may even be lonelier and not receive as much support from friends when they encounter bullying. In this context, emotional eating can serve as a self-soothing strategy. Sadly enough, emotional eating quite often leads to the development of overeating and loss of control over eating or binge eating behaviors. It can also trigger a cycle of restrictive eating and binge eating behaviors with or without compensatory behaviors.
Weight-related bullying is highly frequent among youth, and its consequences should not be dismissed. It is essential to prevent and reduce this type of bullying. Additionally, negative comments or behaviors regarding weight should never be taken lightly and should never be perceived or used as a way to make youth and their families “aware” of a “weight problem.” Youth and families are in fact very conscious of their body size and appearance and are unfortunately too frequently blamed for being unable to control their weight. It is important to increase awareness that one’s body size and weight is not the result of one’s will and is not under the unique control of the person. More respectful interventions which are not focusing on body shaming or weight loss should be elected. These should include a recognition that biological, physiological and genetic factors interfere with one’s body size, shape and weight.
Moreover, youth who are victimized because of their weight should receive help in developing a positive social network and appropriate peer relationships. Having fulfilling relationships can promote a more positive self-esteem and help in coping with negative comments or discriminatory behaviors related to weight. People who are victims of weight-related bullying could also benefit from learning ways to assert themselves in stopping the bullying and discrimination they endure. At the societal level, the widespread belief that weight and health, as well as weight and will, are strongly related should be challenged. In fact, weight is not easy to change or to control, it depends on several factors and cannot be systematically conceived as an indicator of one’s worth or health. Also, body diversity and health at every size must be cultivated, in order to develop a more neutral attitude of individuals with larger bodies.
If you witness or are the victim of weight-related bullying, it is important to report the bully and to seek help. If you are experiencing weight-related bullying and need help, you can contact the Anti-Bullying and Suicide Hotlines in the USA and in Canada.
About The Authors:
Cynthia Gagnon, Ph.D., earned a doctorate degree in psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Quebec, Canada, where she specialized in the comorbidity of eating disorders and diabetes. She also completed a postdoctorate degree in medicine and health sciences – specialization in medical pedagogy, measurement and assessment at the Université de Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. She then completed an advanced certificate in research – concentration in scientific career in the academic setting at the Université de Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. She is now working toward her second postdoctorate degree in psychology at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, Quebec, Canada, in the field of weight-related bullying and intellectual disabilities. You can contact her by email.
Annie Aimé, Ph.D., is a professor at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, Quebec, Canada. Her research focuses on weight-related bullying, overweight and obesity, body image, and eating disorders. She co-founded the Imavi and Äta clinics, where she offers psychotherapy for men, women, and families dealing with weight, eating, and body image issues. You can contact her by email.
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Written – 2018