“Free Willy.” “Beluga.” “Thunder Thighs.” Those are just a few of the cruel names children and adults who are overweight say they’ve been called.
As if the health impact of obesity weren’t enough, many obese people have to put up with bullying and harsh words; victimization that can actually undermine their attempts to lose weight.
But it’s more than just harsh words. Weight-related bullying can include physical aggression, cyber bullying, and damage to relationships or one’s reputation through behaviors like exclusion, manipulation, and rumor spreading.
It all amounts to weight-related bullying, a kind of harassment that often starts at school in childhood or adolescence and follows overweight adults into the workplace and beyond.
A recent survey by the women’s polling site SheByShe found that more than half of some 722 women ages 25 to 64 had experienced weight-related bullying at least once in their lives; 25 percent said incidents occurred because they were underweight, while for most it was the excess pounds that were to blame.
“Unfortunately, these results are similar to many other studies showing that women are vulnerable to victimization and bullying if they are overweight or obese,” says Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University
The SheByShe survey found that bullies of overweight children are often family members, childhood or teenage peers, teachers, coaches and instructors. Adult women reported being bullied about their weight by boyfriends and husbands. Some respondents mentioned that co-workers and even complete strangers have harassed them about their weight.
“There are many reasons why bullies bully. We live in a culture where expressing negative weight-based stereotypes unfortunately remains socially acceptable, and they are rarely challenged,” says Puhl. “We also live in a society that places tremendous blame and fault to individuals for having excess weight, and this blame also fuels bias.”
The survey of women found that, of those who’d been bullied at least once in their lifetime, more that a quarter felt like they also were not hired for a job because of their weight.
Long-Term Health Consequences Of Bullying
While much research has focused on documenting the prevalence of bullying, other research is coming to light about the long-term consequences of all types of bullying. For example, Ryu Takizawa, MD, PhD, and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, recently published their work that concludes that children who are bullied — especially those who are frequently bullied — continued to be at risk for a wide range of negative consequences nearly four decades after the bullying.
Research published last month in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people bullied in childhood had higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts at ages 23 and 50 than their peers. Furthermore, adult victims of childhood bullying had fewer social relationships and more economic hardship at age 50.
Indeed, low self-esteem and eating disorders are concerns with weight-related bullying, and weight-related discrimination or prejudice is another problem individuals may face.
When individuals are stigmatized, bullied, or treated unfairly because of their weight, they are at risk for a whole range of negative emotional and economic consequences, say Puhl. They are also at risk for developing eating disorders and unhealthy eating patterns like binge eating.
The Stigma Of Bullying in Obesity
“Recent research even indicates that these experiences can increase one's risk of obesity and remaining obese over time,” says Puhl. “So, there is a real and damaging impact on health. This is not only a social justice issue, but also a public health issue facing women.”
More than one-third of U.S. adults are now obese and upwards of 18 percent of U.S. children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered obese, and Puhl says prevalence has had an inverse effect on tolerance.
“We've seen that weight bias has worsened as obesity rates have risen,” says Puhl. “Our research shows that weight-based bullying is the most common reason that youth are bullied at school.” She notes that there’s been a lot of national attention given to the general problem of youth bullying in our country, but not enough attention to weigh-specific bullying.
If you believe you are being weight-bullied or are suffering the consequences of having been bullied as a kid, there are steps you can take to help your situation. Consider these measures:
- When being actively bullied, be confident and try not to fight back; stay calm, and walk away. The more you respond to the bullying, the more the bully will want to continue.
- Help someone else who is being bullied. You are in a unique position to be a friend.
- If you’ve been a victim of weight-related harassment at work, check your employee manual for the bullying policy and complaint procedure. You will most likely have to file a written complaint detailing the encounter.
For Family Caregivers
- Encouraging someone to lose weight can feel like badgering and condescension, even when it’s intended to be supportive. Look for ways to inspire and support any actions your loved one takes toward weight loss.
- If you feel someone in your life is suffering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety or long-term consequences of being bullied as a child, seek professional support. Psychology Today and The National Eating Disorders Association offer information on getting in touch with qualified therapists in your area.