It was time for everyone in my 6th grade class to line up in the school gym for our annual weight/height measurements by the school nurse. My stomach was already churning, because, if past experiences taught me anything, I would need to brace for the bullying that would ensue after my weight was called out within earshot of my classmates.
Sure enough, after my weight was announced, I heard laughing and whispers. In both the halls and classrooms, I was called names like “whale,” “heavy chevy” (a shortened version of my name), and “cow.” Even my best friends called me names while we played together on the playground.
That happened almost 40 years ago, but I can remember it plain as day, as if the words were permanently seared into my skin as reminders.
I can also remember choking back tears all the way home and slinking upstairs to my room. I locked the door behind me and pried up a floorboard near my bed that was loose. Ahhh, there it was. My secret stash of candy bars. The stash that made all my suffering go away. Or so I thought.
Weight-based bullying and binge eating disorder
I now know I was doing what plenty of research has confirmed as a desolating consequence for a victim of bullying: binge eating. I would grow up engaging in that behavior for many years to come, not knowing what it was, why I was doing it, or how to stop. Not knowing binge eating disorder (BED) is a complex psychiatric disorder with countless risk factors, signs and symptoms, and potential accompanying physical and psychological complications (called co-morbidities)—and that bullying can be a contributing factor.
Bullying has very serious consequences. Studies show bullying of any kind, but particularly weight-based bullying, leads to increased occurrence of low self-esteem, poor body image, social isolation, eating disorders, and poor academic performance.
Kids and teens who are overweight can be victims of many forms of bullying, including physical force, name calling, derogatory comments, being ignored or excluded, or being made fun of.
Research conducted by Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director of the Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity found:
- Weight-based teasing predicted binge eating at five years of follow-up among both men and women, even after controlling for age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
- Peer victimization can be directly predicted by weight.
- 64% of students enrolled in weight-loss programs reported experiencing weight-based victimization.
- One third of girls and one fourth of boys report weight-based teasing from peers, but prevalence rates increase to approximately 60% among the heaviest students.
- 84% of students observed students perceived as overweight being called names or getting teased during physical activities.
Bullying is trauma and can lead to BED
Bullying because of body size can have a major negative impact on this vulnerable population. We know BED has the highest rate of trauma of all eating disorders. That is, individuals who have binge eating disorder have experienced trauma at some point during their lives. Types of trauma include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, a divorce or death, and, yes, bullying.
Trauma doesn’t have to be catastrophic to have lasting catastrophic effects on a person’s psychological, social, and physical health.
People living in larger bodies experience trauma every day by being assaulted by negative attitudes and messages about weight from all angles: in the media; at home, school, and work; even in doctors’ offices. This increases stress and leads to internalized weight stigma, which further entrenches disordered eating patterns.
What can we do about it?
There are several things you can do to help stop weight-based bullying and all other types of bullying.
- Learn what bullying is and what it is not.
- Learn to recognize warning signs that your child is involved in bullying.
- Talk to your child about bullying and what to do if it happens.
- National Weight Stigma Awareness Week. Learn how you can get involved.