When kids are bullied, the mental and physical toll can persist for decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 22% of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school in 2019. Weight-based bullying is the most common form of bullying among adolescents, and it has negative consequences for physical, emotional and psychological health.
When I was in grad school, my master’s thesis was on the topic of pediatric “obesity.” I remember a family member asking me if the kids in the study were bullied at school — because if they were, it probably wasn’t the worst thing because that would motivate them to lose weight. I looked them dead in the eye and said, “Bullying, stigma and shame are never effective motivators for long-term positive change!” In fact, the opposite is true. A 2019 study found that teasing or bullying kids because of their weight is linked to increased weight gain well into adulthood. That’s ironic, but it’s not the worst part.
Weight-based bullying can take the form of teasing, name-calling, physical attacks or relational victimization — social exclusion, rumor-spreading and manipulation. And while bullying used to be mostly face-to-face, now we also have cyberbullying. Even if teasing or harassment about weight or shape doesn’t happen in the schoolyard, it happens in homes, in cul-de-sacs, and in doctor’s offices, and it can happen to kids who aren’t actually fat. (I use fat as a neutral descriptor, like “short” or “tall.”) One of my clients, as an adolescent, was told by her pediatrician to eat less after school so she wouldn’t “get fat.” Sorry, but half an apple is not an appropriate after-school snack for a hungry and growing child.
Adolescents may be especially vulnerable to harm by weight-related teasing and bullying at school because acceptance by peers feels so important at that age. The harm can occur even if a child isn’t directly teased — simply observing other students being teased or harassed because of their weight can be stressful and create a fear of being judged. Means of coping with that stress and fear may include disordered eating and avoidance of physical activity.
Research involving fourth to sixth graders found that “unhealthy” eating was a common coping mechanism for stress, and other research found that appearance-based teasing in “overweight” kids ages 10 to 14 was associated with a preference for sedentary, isolated activities. A 2020 study found that adolescents who are bullied about their weight or body shape — especially “overweight” girls — may be more likely to use alcohol or marijuana than their peers who are not bullied.
Weight-based bullying can also lead to depression or anxiety, social isolation, avoiding eating at school (leading to persistent hunger or fatigue) or attempts to increase social acceptance by becoming the “class clown.” This impairs quality of life as well as academic performance. Bullied kids may develop unhealthy weight-control practices — including restrictive eating, vomiting or inappropriate use of laxatives — to try to cope with or even stop the bullying. In some cases, this can lead to binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia or other eating disorders.
Sadly, the most frequent source of weight-related teasing and bullying is other family members. In research studies, “obese” women name their parents when describing the worst of their childhood experiences, and about two-thirds report being teased or bullied about their weight by family members on multiple occasions. Many women report that they continue to be subjected to weight-related teasing, name-calling and inappropriate weight- and shape-related comments by family members, so this is not a problem limited to childhood. I see the harmful effects of this in almost all of my clients.
When someone is bullied or harassed because of their weight, it certainly becomes their problem, but it is not their fault. It is a systemic issue, not a personal problem to be fixed. Trying to alter body size to escape stigma places an unfair burden on someone who has already been victimized. It adds insult to injury, and it’s not even a permanent solution — the majority of people who intentionally lose weight gain back most, all, or even more of it within about five years.
I know that’s not what “concern trolls” believe when they say, “But I’m worried about your health” or “You’re going to get diabetes” to someone who is fat. That old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Untrue. So how can we start addressing the real problem?
- If you tease, criticize or otherwise comment on other people’s weight or body shape, stop now. It doesn’t matter who the person is. It also doesn’t matter if they are physically present at the moment — whoever hears you will wonder what you’re thinking (but not saying) about their body, and that alone is harmful, especially if the person overhearing you is a child.
- If you are an adult who experienced weight-based bullying or teasing as a child, show yourself compassion. What happened to you was wrong, and you did not deserve it. You can’t undo what was done to you, but can you be a part of breaking the cycle in your family, among your friends or even in the broader society?
- Call out bullying and shut down shamers. According to stopbullying.gov, when adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior they send the message that it is not acceptable, and research shows this can stop bullying behavior over time.
- Find out if the anti-bullying policy at your child’s school also addresses weight-based bullying (not all do). This is important regardless of your child’s actual weight.
- Watch for signs that kids are being teased or bullied about their bodies. These include changes in eating habits (suddenly skipping meals, binge eating or coming home from school hungry because they didn’t eat), avoidance of social situations, declining grades, not wanting to go to school, decreased self-esteem or self-destructive behaviors.