b'ing stigma-free

Currently in the United States, 1/3 of youth are either overweight or obese. As rates of childhood obesity have continued to climb in recent decades, so has teasing and Image: Weight-based stigma in youthbullying of these children. Weight-based teasing and bullying is a problem that begins early in childhood and continues throughout adolescence. Youth who are obese are significantly more likely to be bullied than their thinner classmates, and among the heaviest youth, at least 60% report being teased or bullied about their weight. The research is so robust in this area, that a child’s likelihood of being teased or bullied in the future can be predicted by his or her weight status.

As a psychologist and researcher, I’ve been studying weight-based bullying and stigma for almost 15 years. Consistently, we have found in our studies (and observed in research by others) that weight-based victimization is one of the most common forms of bullying reported in the school setting.1-2 In fact, a report by the National Education Association in 2011 found that teachers across the country viewed weight-based bullying to be the most problematic form of bullying in the school setting.[3] Our studies have similarly found that both students and parents report that being overweight is the most common reason that youth are teased and bullied.1-4

As with other forms of bullying, there are many negative consequences for youth who are teased, ignored, excluded, verbally threatened and physically harassed because of their weight. Weight-based stigma has negative implications for the psychological well-being, social functioning and physical health of youth who are targeted. In addition to increased social isolation, youth who are teased or bullied about their weight are at heightened risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, suicidal ideation, unhealthy eating behaviors, avoidance of physical activity, poorer school performance and avoidance of school.[5-9] Many of these outcomes can actually reinforce additional weight gain and obesity in children.

The pervasiveness of this problem reinforces the need for effective strategies to protect students from being bullied about their weight in the school setting. One approach is to ensure that body weight and weight-based bullying are included in school-based curriculum, and treated on par with other forms of bullying. But we may also need to look more broadly at existing anti-bullying policies and laws that can help protect these vulnerable students.

Many (most) school districts now have anti-bullying policies in place. However, few of these policies include body weight as a characteristic that places youth at risk for bullying. Similarly, 49 states currently have school-based anti-bullying laws, but only three states (Maine, New York and New Hampshire) include body weight or physical appearance as a distinguishing characteristic. This makes it unclear whether or not students who are overweight and obese are adequately protected from weight-based bullying under existing provisions. Recently, we’ve conducted some national studies to examine parental support for policies and laws to address this issue. We found that over 75% of parents are in favor of strengthening school-based anti-bullying laws to specifically include body weight as a distinguishing characteristic and increase protections against bullying for students who are overweight, as well as efforts to promote more awareness of this problem in schools.

In addition to policies and laws to address weight-based bullying, we also need to take a hard, critical look at how the media reinforces weight stigma in our society. In all forms of media – television, film, news media, social media – weight stigma is perpetuated toward individuals who are obese by communicating negative stereotypes that they are lazy, lacking in willpower, sloppy, and gluttonous.10-11 Research examining the content of children’s media shows this to be consistently true. Stated simply, weight stigma is rarely challenged in the media, and is instead often ignored. When we consider how much media our culture consumes, it’s not surprising that studies show that children who watch more television are more likely to express weight bias toward their overweight peers.

Weight-based stigma toward youth is a societal problem in need of broad solutions. Although obesity is a particularly visible condition that is stigmatized, efforts to effectively address this problem are scarce and remain invisible. With so many youth in our country now overweight or obese, millions are vulnerable to stigma and its negative consequences. More than ever, we need to increase awareness of this problem and promote efforts to improve the quality of life of these youth.

[1] Bucchianeri MM, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Weightism, racism, classism, and sexism: shared forms of harassment in adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2013;53(1):47-53.
2 Puhl RM, Luedicke J, Heuer C. Weight-based victimization toward overweight adolescents: Observations and reactions of peers. Journal of School Health. 2011;81(11):696-703.
3 Bradshaw CP, Waasdorp TE, O’Brennan LM, Gulemetova M. Findings from the National Education Association’s nationwide study of bullying: Teachers’ and education support professionals’ perspectives. 2011.
4 Puhl RM, Luedicke J, Depierre JA. Parental Concerns about Weight-Based Victimization in Youth. Child Obes. 2013.
5 Bucchianeri MM, Eisenberg ME, Wall MM, Piran N, Neumark-Sztainer D. Multiple types of harassment: associations with emotional well-being and unhealthy behaviors in adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2014;54(6):724-9.
6 Greenleaf C, Petrie TA, Martin SB. Relationship of weight‐based teasing and adolescents’ psychological well‐being and physical health. Journal of School Health. 2014;84(1):49-55.
[7] Haines J, Neumark-Sztainer D, Eisenberg ME, Hannan PJ. Weight teasing and disordered eating behaviors in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics. 2006;117(2):209-15.
8 Krukowski RA, West DS, Perez AP, Bursac Z, Phillips MM, Raczynski JM. Overweight children, weight-based teasing and academic performance. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. 2009;4(4):274-80.
[9] Puhl RM, Luedicke J. Weight-based victimization among adolescents in the school setting: Emotional reactions and coping behaviors. J Youth Adolesc. 2012;41:27-40.
[10] Latner JD, Rosewall JK, Simmonds MB. Childhood obesity stigma: association with television, videogame, and magazine exposure. Body image. 2007;4(2):147-55.
[11] Robinson T, Callister M, Jankoski T. Portrayal of body weight on children’s television sitcoms: A content analysis. Body image. 2008;5(2):141-51.

Image of Rebecca PuhlDr. Rebecca Puhl is the Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. As a Senior Research Scientist, she coordinates research and policy efforts aimed at reducing weight bias and improving the quality of life of children and adults affected by obesity. Dr. Puhl received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Yale University. She has conducted research on weight bias for 14 years and has published numerous studies on weight-based bullying in youth, weight bias in health care and the media, interventions to reduce weight bias, and the impact of weight stigma on emotional and physical health. Dr. Puhl has testified in state legislative hearings on weight bias, routinely provides expertise on this issue to State Departments of Health and national health organizations, and has developed evidence-based trainings to reduce weight bias that have been implemented in medical facilities across the country. Dr. Puhl has emerged as the leading national expert in the field of weight bias, and her research is routinely reported on in national and international media. Dr. Puhl has served on the Council of The Obesity Society, and on the Board of Directors for the Obesity Action Coalition. In 2013, she was awarded the Excellence in Policy Research Award from the National Eating Disorders Coalition. More information on Dr. Puhl’s work is available at www.yaleruddcenter.org.

To learn more about weight stigma in youth, please visit the following Rudd Center websites which provide free educational resources, videos, handouts, and more: www.yaleruddcenter.org and www.ruddrootsparents.org


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