Hitting the Mute Button on Weight-Based Bullying

October is National Bullying Prevention Month because bullying should never be a part of childhood. So we find ourselves wondering. Can we find the mute button for bullying? Are parents, teachers, and coaches giving bullies an open mic for weight-based bullying?

Complicity with Weight-Based Bullying

Adults are supposedly in charge. But when it comes to weight-based bullying, we see complicity from adults. In a recent essay, Jeffrey Hunger, Joslyn Smith, and Janet Tomiyama pointed to this problem. They write that weight-centered health policy creates, perpetuates, and maintains weight stigma. including weight-based bullying. At best, they say, four decades of weight-centered health policies have been ineffective. Worse still, they have served to promote stigma and added to poor health outcomes.

BMI report cards, for example, have meant that it was OK to single out kids at school for their size. The report card label is a euphemism. Kids are more blunt about it. They call them “fat letters.”

So it’s little wonder that kids living with obesity report parents, coaches, and teachers are common perpetrators.

A Conspiracy

Harry Minot describes how this works in an essay on Medium:

“My mother was intent upon correcting my fatness. She contacted the school to express her concern about ‘Harry’s weight problem.’ The school, in response, acted to prevent me from taking second helpings in the school’s Dining Hall and ensure that I was served only “dietetic” Jello instead of the regular desserts. The school nurse was ordered to weigh me every month (including caliper measurements of the thickness of my belly, the area on my back beneath my shoulder blades, and my breasts), and the Physical Education Director was under orders to push me, HARD.”

Quite naturally, the kids pitched in with taunts and nicknames.

Can We Put Health First?

All of this points to an obvious problem with putting weight first. It triggers a cascade of unintended consequences including more weight stigma and bullying. The new Canadian guidelines for obesity care offer an example of a better approach. For an example of what not to do, the UK Let’s-All-Lose-Weight campaign is more or less perfect.

It’s easy to recognize the cruelty of kids when they mercilessly bully their peers about weight. However, when adults set up the environment for it and call it a health policy, that’s ultimately more damaging. It’s time to put health first. Obesity is real and it harms health. Beating people up about their weight doesn’t help. Health matters and good health does indeed come in different sizes.

So let’s hit the mute button on weight-based bullying in all its forms.

Click here for a new podcast from FARE on bullying and food that features ConscienHealth’s Ted Kyle. For more on National Bullying Prevention Month, click here. And finally, click here for perspective on what it takes to prevent bullying in schools.

Mute, photograph © ~dgies / flickr

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October 23, 2020

2 Responses to “Hitting the Mute Button on Weight-Based Bullying”

  1. October 23, 2020 at 9:34 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Somehow, school-age children AND their parents/caretakers, younger ages AND teenagers need better access to care and attention for weight challenges in a weight-neutral, of course, health-centered approach (even though at these ages, it’s more about looks). HCPs and programs knowledgeable and skilled in the complexities of obesity and weight management, need to be rolled out, perhaps in school districts or via community health practices, so that parents and adults are better informed, feel more empowered to do right by their children! Blaming parents and adults for being complicit, is not helpful. They just know the ‘world’ and don’t want their children to suffer. They want what’s best. They just need ‘best’, not what’s been on offer, so far. How they’ve behaved in addressing their children who need attention is more about the culture and lack of understanding, in general, about obesity and weight, as well as a big gap in pediatric services to deliver best care, both treatment and prevention for children with obesity/overweight.

  2. October 24, 2020 at 3:39 pm, Allen Browne said:


    I could not agree more:
    “Blaming parents and adults for being complicit, is not helpful.”
    “How they’ve behaved in addressing their children who need attention is more about the culture and lack of understanding, in general, about obesity and weight,”

    And the internalized bias, guilt, and desire to protect their children gets in the way. It can make then resistant or defiant if the subject of weight is brought up by a healthcare provider. It can make them reluctant to seek care for their child even if it is available.

    We have much to do. Thank you for your thoughts.