Without Fear

Five Things to Know About Bullying and Weight Bias

The ugliest aspect of weight bias finds its purest expression in bullying. Bullies have an instinct for finding a person’s vulnerability and using it to tear a person down. They are intentional and relentless. Bullying gives them power over their victim. Because our culture has an unhealthy obsession with thinness, weight bias enables bullies. It provides a target and a tool for bullying. So here are five things you should know about bullying and weight bias.

1. Weight Is the Most Common Target for Bullies

According to Rebecca Puhl and colleagues, adolescents report that overweight is the primary reason for bullying at school. Only sexual orientation comes close to matching it.

2. Obesity Raises the Risk of Bullying

Back in 2004, Ian Janssen and colleagues showed that kids with overweight and obesity were more likely to be bullied and more likely to become bullies as well. More recently, Kristie Rupp and Stephanie McCoy offered further evidence that obesity raises the risk for bullying and for being bullied. In addition, they documented extensive problems that this creates for the psychological health and well-being of children with obesity. Bullying harms both the bully and the victim.

3. Weight-Based Bullying Raises the Risk of Obesity in Adulthood

Children who are bullied because of their weight are more likely to have obesity that persists into adulthood. In fact, Abdullah Mamun and colleagues showed that being bullied more than doubled the odds of obesity at the age of 21.

4. Bullying Harms Both Physical and Psychological Health

Ryu Takizawa and colleagues showed that the impact of weight-based bullying is more than just psychological. It raises the risk of systemic inflammation and obesity at mid-life. In turn, systemic inflammation is a risk marker for further chronic diseases.

5. Bullying Can Lead to Risk of Social Isolation and Suicide

Any participation in bullying clearly leads to the risk of suicide. That risk extends to both victims and perpetrators. Young Shin Kim and Bennett Leventhall provide an excellent overview of the evidence.

Unintended Consequences

When people cluck about childhood obesity without caring for the children who live with it, we see a serious risk for bad outcomes. If childhood obesity is bad and it must be prevented, then bullies have a target. Screening programs and fat letters going home to parents can serve to make that target even more obvious.

Children with excess weight don’t need help to figure out their physical status. Bullies are quite good at pointing this out. For this reason alone, “awareness” campaigns can be quite destructive. Instead, we need a focus on interventions to prevent and stop bullying. And we need to provide better care for children with obesity, especially in its most severe forms.

Without Fear, photograph © Seth Capitulo / flickr

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July 3, 2019

2 Responses to “Five Things to Know About Bullying and Weight Bias”

  1. July 04, 2019 at 8:06 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    amen to nixing awareness campaigns. the BMI as vital sign band wagon promulgated by many authorities and in turn insurance mandates may be just as bad.

  2. July 07, 2019 at 7:52 pm, Paul Ernsberger said:

    Bravo, Ted. We need an about-face in public health efforts on childhood obesity.