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Preventing Bullying and Negative Body Image in Children with Obesity

sad child with obesity

Me: “Does your school have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying.”

Caregiver: “Yes! I went down to the school, the kids are constantly talking about her size, she won’t eat at school and now she doesn’t want to go. She is so bright – why are kids so mean?”

Me: *Sigh*

As a pediatric weight management specialist, our patients often experience bullying around their weight. It’s not easy to be in a world that is telling kids they are “bad” and “wrong” based solely on their weight.

For decades, we all were taught that weight is a personal choice and that people who have overweight lack will power and are lazy. Your weight is determined by many factors and if it was as simple as “calories in and calories out” then there wouldn’t be an issue. Knowing this, however, has not decreased the bullying and shame that people with overweight experience.

In Georgia, all school systems have a zero-tolerance policy around bullying and are encouraged to provide education to improve “character” and decrease bullying. Yet, statistics tell us that 24 – 30% of kids with overweight or obesity are bullied in 6th grade and that increases to 58 – 63% in high school. Eating disorders are on the rise with 81% of 10-year-old children afraid of being fat and less than 6% of people diagnosed with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as underweight. So, the punishment system is important to protect the victims of bullying, but is it going to really change the problem?

What can we do to help our children love and accept their own bodies as well as those of their friends?

We all have seen the messages about thinness and beauty and unlearning these is not easy. They are hidden in ads, television shows and magazines. To understand how much we have internalized this, take a moment to think about how you talk to yourself about your own body. Are you critical of how you look, how much you weigh or anything else about your appearance? Most of us are. And, if we are, then most likely so are our kids. How can we reframe our thoughts and model self-acceptance for our kids?

One important step is to stop talking about weight. Don’t talk about diets, body shapes, or how your jeans fit. Talking about weight increases the risk of eating disorders. Use words like health, healthy, strong, and capable. If jeans don’t ‘look good’ on you – it’s the jeans – not you!

Start telling your kids how amazing your body is and then how amazing their body is! Combine the physical with the emotional – saying something like "Your brain can process so much information!" or "Your legs are perfect for volleyball and jumping."

Ask your kids what they like most about their bodies and start building from there. Remember this may feel awkward at first and that is normal and OK. If you aren’t sure how to start, our team at Hearts Connected can be a helpful resource. The specialists can help you learn to talk to your kids in a way that is productive and can bring you closer to your goals of building the groundwork for long term health and happiness. If your kids are struggling with bullying, our team of child life specialists can help your child to build coping skills and confidence since we know the policies aren’t going to do that.

Please give yourself grace as we move forward with this new idea of beauty. Changing these messages will take time and we can achieve it if we do it together!