Bullying is a harsh form of judgment. It’s painful. And the scars, whether emotional or physical, can last for years to come. Weight-based and any other form of bullying leaves the victim feeling insecure, excluded, and unsafe. Children will do whatever they can to change what’s “wrong” to find safety and fit in with their peers. Oftentimes, this means unsafe, unhealthy, and/or secretive eating behaviors in an effort to soothe themselves or numb out from emotions. It can also mean drastic changes in eating and exercise in an attempt to lose weight, to which the mind and body respond with intense urges to binge.
Weight-based bullying in children stems from society’s push for the thin ideal. Of course, there are groups and individuals standing up against the thin ideal, but for the purposes of this blog, we are discussing the pressure from media and society that tells us “thin is best.”
The tricky thing about the thin ideal is that it isn’t a realistic (or necessary) goal for most people. However, it is touted as the road to success, the key to finding friends and love, and the secret to happiness. On the opposite end of the thin ideal is the fear of being a failure, lonely, and depressed. I have heard several children in my practice express these very concerns.
Society perpetuates these fears through weight-based stereotypes that encourage discrimination. In fact, studies have shown that there is wide belief “that overweight and obese individuals are lazy, weak-willed, unsuccessful, unintelligent, lack self-discipline, have poor willpower, and are noncompliant with weight-loss treatment.” This is the message we have to change.
All children, and all people, deserve to feel safe in their own bodies and to pursue success, love, happiness, and anything else they desire.
The way for us to encourage this equality is not through pointing out perceived flaws or propagating weight stigma. In fact, rather than motivate healthy changes, stigmatization causes harm in both emotional and physical aspects of health. And guess what? We actually don’t know for sure that weight loss is the answer, nor the safest and most effective way to achieve and maintain weight loss. And we can’t blame or shame the individual for that.
What I am advocating for here is an approach to health education that is not appearance-based or weight-based, with the hope that this shift in our medical community will become the new public health message. That this shift in values will decrease the judgment, shame, and bullying that children experience because of their weight.
So, what can we do?
Promote healthy behaviors
It’s simple, really. As health professionals, educators, parents, and members of society, we can promote healthy behaviors without an emphasis or mention of body weight.
Here are 7 ways to promote positive emotional and physical health in our youth:
- Avoid talk about weight and appearance
- Increase expression about feelings and emotions through journaling, talking, or art
- Promote a positive relationship with food through mindful and intuitive eating
- Have family meals without electronics present to encourage sharing and connection
- Keep kid’s rooms free of electronics to encourage in-person interactions rather than isolation
- Participate in activities you find fun as a family, such as playing at the park, hiking, or swimming
- Ensure adequate sleep; talk to your child’s pediatrician if your child struggles to fall asleep or wakes excessively throughout the night
If you are a parent, you may find it beneficial to seek the help of a pediatrician, therapist, or registered dietitian with the information above. Don’t be afraid to ask about their philosophies on weight before making your appointment.
To health and happiness!
 Puhl, R., & Heuer, C. Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health. Retrieved September 1, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2866597/
 Puhl, R. Latner, J. & Stigma, obesity, and the health of the nation’s children. Retrieved September 1, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17592956
Amrie Weiss, RD is a registered dietitian in San Diego specializing in disordered eating, eating disorders, and emotional eating. Amrie earned her Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and completed her dietetic internship at UC San Diego Medical Center. She has experience in treating eating disorders at the residential, partial hospitalization, and outpatient levels of care. She uses a non-diet approach that focuses on mindful and intuitive eating, as well as processing the how and why behind food choices and eating behaviors. She believes that you are the expert of your own body, though there are times when a little guidance is needed to get back to that place of internal wisdom. Learn more about Amrie and her services at amrieweissrd.com.
This content was originally published on the BEDA Blog in 2015.