Although anyone can be bullied, tweens and teens who are underweight or obese are at a higher risk of being bullied. When kids are targeted because of their weight, this is often referred to as weight teasing. And research shows that when kids are bullied about their weight – whether overweight, thin or somewhere in-between – they become dissatisfied with their bodies. The result is a body image problem.
Body image has to do with how people think about their size and their shape. How a young person views her body relates to how she thinks about herself as a whole. As a result, a negative body image can lead to low self-esteem. This, in turn, leads to other problems. In fact, many people with negative body images struggle with eating disorders, depression and may even engage in self-harming behaviors.
A closer look at the problem
For overweight children, losing weight is not an easy task. But when you add in bullying, it becomes even more difficult. Dealing with ongoing weight teasing that occurs at school, online and sometimes even at home, makes the situation seem insurmountable at times. And these kids can feel trapped, alone and helpless to change their situations.
What’s more, it’s not just mean girls who are initiating weight teasing. Studies have shown that their friends, teachers, coaches and even their parents might participate. These people often use subtle forms of bullying or relational aggression to bully and tease. Or, they may use what is called a “license to comment.” In other words, they feel it is acceptable for them to make comments about the young person’s weight, what they are eating, what they order in restaurants, their clothes and how they spend their time.
Most of the time, these comments may sound like helpful hints, but they are often laced with an air of judgment and criticism. This then leads the kids to feel bad about themselves and their bodies. The result is a negative body image. It also can create a vicious cycle where these kids begin to eat more to get rid of negative feelings. Then, they suffer from guilt and shame afterwards and the cycle repeats itself.
There also is some evidence that overweight children who are subjected to weight-related teasing are less likely to exercise. At the root of this lack of exercise is not laziness, but a fear that they will be made fun of during their activities. Or, they worry that others will judge or criticize how fast they can run or how many push ups they can do.
What can be done?
Most people think that the first step to dealing with weight-related bullying is to help the child lose weight. But really, the child cannot focus on losing weight and getting healthy while fielding cutting remarks and criticisms. As a result, the weight bullying and teasing has to be ended first.
If you or other family members are making the comments about your child’s weight, it needs to stop immediately. And, if the bullying is happening at school, it needs to be addressed right away. Make a commitment to help your child overcome bullying. It’s not until she has a healthy mindset and is free of bullying that any real and lasting change can take place.
Once the bullying has been dealt with, you can begin by promoting healthy eating and exercise habits. In addition, you should help boost self-esteem and resilience by focusing on positive attributes and not on weight. Encourage your children to participate in activities they enjoy and that will build self-confidence.