Kids bullied because of their weight

Young people and adults report that targeting kids based on weight is a common form of bullying.

When young people are bullied, they’re targeted by others for a wide variety of reasons – such as who their friends are, what they can afford to wear, whether they “fit” into narrow gender expectations, what they like to do and how they express themselves. Some research has shown, however, that the primary reason why kids are targets of hurtful bullying behaviors is related to weight.

In 2012, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) published a report that examined ways that elementary-aged children’s biases are reflected in bullying behaviors. Of kids in grades three through six, 67 percent reported that the bullying and name-calling they witnessed at their school was related to students’ appearance or body size. This was echoed by 70 percent of teachers in the study who reported that students were very often, often or sometimes bullied, called names or harassed for these reasons. A study recently published in the Pediatric Obesity journal also reflects these perspectives. That study asked 2,866 adults and college-aged students from four countries (including 1,261 people from the United States) to identify reasons why children are most often teased or bullied. While many people identified areas like sexual orientation, race/ethnicity/nationality and physical disabilities as common reasons, “being fat” was by far the most commonly identified reason. In addition, 69 percent of the study’s participants agreed that the issue is a serious or very serious problem for kids. The majority of those in the study also agreed that schools should promote awareness about weight-based bullying and address it within anti-bullying policies and that there should be protections against this kind of bullying within anti-bullying laws.

Given how common weight-based bullying behaviors are, it’s likely that most of us have witnessed young people – and adults – being targeted by others related to body size. There are several kinds of action that we can take related to this issue:

  • Be willing to challenge yourself, other adults and the young people in your life about negative weight-related attitudes and stereotypes. Within our culture, we’re bombarded with messages and products that shame people about their body shapes and sizes. Challenge the narrow weight-normative approach that reinforces negative stereotypes and weight stigma. Instead, focus on a weight-inclusive approach that accepts and supports a variety of body shapes and sizes. Help young people develop media literacy skills that can empower them to deconstruct and challenge messages about weight in advertising, television shows and movies, and other forms of media.
  • When you see others being targeted based on size, find ways to use your voice to challenge the behaviors and to provide support to those who are targeted. Help the young people in your life build skills that move them from being passive bystanders to becoming powerful allies who can take action in positive and supportive ways. Help young people who are targeted by these hurtful behaviors develop resiliency as they navigate these challenging (and often ongoing) situations.
  • Michigan public schools are required by law to have clear policies prohibiting bullying of students. In addition, there are federal laws that protect students’ civil rights related to bias and harassment based on sex, race, color, national origin and disability. Missing from these laws – and from many schools’ policies – is any mention of bullying or harassment based on weight. Given the prevalence of bullying behaviors that target young people based on their size, you may want to further examine the bullying policies of local schools to see if they specifically address issues of size. Encouraging schools to add this area to their policies may open the door to positive conversations and action for addressing and preventing these hurtful behaviors.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about ways to support the health and wellbeing of young people – including ways to prevent bullying, bias and harassment. These efforts are part of the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings.

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