This year during the week of January 20th to 24th, 2020, the national organization GLSEN is calling attention to bullying with “No Name-Calling Week.” Although GLSEN is an organization focused on LBGTQ+ issues, bullying is a universal experience and one that is very relevant to eating disorder work. Weight-based bullying is rampant in our current culture, especially for children and adolescents. As we highlight the need to address bullying throughout the country, we are reminded that body size is still an area in which we excuse and allow discrimination.
Bullying has garnered national attention over the last ten years or so due to the clear negative impact that this behavior has victims. Mainly occurring during middle and high school years, bullying can take many forms. Some bullying is overt and obvious, while other bullying strategies are a bit sneakier. In either case, bullying has a negative impact on a growing child’s self-esteem.
GLSEN, a national organization representing the LGBTQ+ community, addresses to address the disproportionate levels of bullying that LGBTQ+ students have to deal with by highlighting the problem during No Name-Calling Week.
According to GLSEN’s website:
GLSEN’s No Name-Calling Week is a week organized by K-12 educators and students to end name-calling and bullying in schools.
Founded in 2004 with Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, and evaluated by GLSEN research, No Name-Calling Week was inspired by James Howe’s novel The Misfits about students who, after experiencing name-calling, run for student council on a No Name-Calling platform.
The week is rooted in the idea of #KindnessInAction — not merely recognizing the importance of kindness, but actively adding kindness into our every action. See below ways to participate and put #KindnessInAction, including lesson plans for elementary, middle, and high school!
While GLSEN is an organization that focuses specifically on the LGBTQ+ youth population, their No Name-Calling Week and calls attention to bullying within our youth communities. It also highlights the other individuals who are often targeted in cases of adolescent bullying. Body size is one of these identities.
Weight-Based Bullying is a Trauma
Weight-based bullying has been on the rise since the 1960s. According to Mirror Mirror, an online eating disorder publication:
Up to 92% of school children report having witnessed discriminatory behaviors related to weight or having heard negative comments about weight. Many youths (27%) are teased about their weight and it is even more common amongst larger bodied children and teenagers. Almost half of the children (34% to 63% of girls and 36% to 58% of boys) and teenagers (45% of girls and 50% of boys) in larger bodies reported having received negative comments concerning their weight. Compared with children considered to be of ‘normal weight,’ those who fall into the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ categories are more likely to be bullied.
[Note: quotation marks around BMI status descriptions allude to the inherent weight bias in these descriptive clinical terms]
Not only is weight-based bullying extremely common, but it has profoundly negative impacts on those who are on the receiving end. As explained by Mirror Mirror, higher weight increases risk of being bullied. This sets up weight cycling, typically via disordered eating and excessive exercise:
Thus, having negative body image or even feeling disgusted with one’s body creates a vulnerable state that can lead a person to develop unhealthy weight control practices (dieting, restrictive eating, vomiting, inappropriate use of laxatives), problematic eating behaviors, and, ultimately, eating disorders. Importantly, engaging in restrictive eating and dieting to change body shape and size most often ends in the development of binge eating behaviors.
Weight-based bullying is also not just a risk factor for eating disorders. Mental health in general is negatively impacted by weight stigma. Here are just some of the mental health impacts indicated by various research on weight stigma:
- Struggles with depression and body image were found to be higher among people seeking intentional weight loss, bariatric surgery, or who have binge eating disorder.
- Those with higher levels of internalized weight stigma are more likely to experience mental health disturbances.
- Even when potential confounding factors are controlled for (BMI, race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc), stigma-induced stress persists. This stress contributes to higher rates of substance abuse disorders and anxiety and mood disorders.
- Internalized weight bias is associated with increased body image concerns, dissociation, and food preoccupation (referred to as “food addiction” in the research).
- Over half of people who experience weight stigma also qualify as having at least one psychiatric disorder.
- Other potential negative mental health consequences include emotion regulation struggles, negative affect, somatic symptoms, and maladaptive coping.
- Perceived weight-based discrimination is associated with low self-esteem, poor psychosocial functioning, binge eating, and psychological distress.
- Internalized weight bias is found to be a significant and independent risk factor for poor self-esteem, over and above BMI.
- As weight status increases, so do psychiatric disorders.
Implications for Practice and our Culture
The research is clear: weight-based bullying is both rampant and bad for our health. The more we learn, the more obvious it becomes that weight stigma plays a huge role in the health of larger-bodied people. This is increasingly true for people of all sizes as the fear of becoming fat is reinforced more and more in our mainstream cultural narrative.
Both in the case of clinical practice and in our everyday lives, we need to be doing the work to root out weight stigma. It serves none of us, harms all of us, and ensures that we will always have to treat and address the very real symptoms related to eating disorders, body and food preoccupation, and negative body image.
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About the Author
Ashley M. Seruya is a social work student, virtual assistant, and content creator specializing in eating disorder recovery, Health at Every Size, and weight stigma. Learn more about her work at ashleymseruya.com or on her Instagram at @fatpositivetherapy.