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Obese Kids Still Targeted by Bullying

November 11, 2010


How many excuses can a bully find for picking on another kid? Well let’s see, there’s color, religion, sex, economic status, and, of course, size. And childhood obesity isn’t even the issue here, obesity being defined as a Body Mass Index at or above the 95th percentile. A kid can qualify as a victim with nothing more than a case of childhood chubbiness, a technical term that means “just fat enough to be seen as cute by grownups but persecuted by young thugs.”

HealthDay writer Serena Gordon affirms that even a moderately overweight child can attract bullying:

[… F]actors that usually play a role in the risk of being bullied, such as gender, race and family income levels, don’t seem to matter if you’re overweight — being overweight or obese trumps all those other factors when it comes to aggressive behavior from other children.

This unhappy news is the result of a study done at the Center for Human Growth and Development, which is attached to the University of Michigan. Dr. Julie Lumeng and her team wondered whether bullying might have begun to fade, now that overweight kids are so common. They constructed an inquiry that involved 821 young people from 10 different American locales. Guess what? Study author Lumeng says,

[…] What we found, much to our dismay, was that nothing seemed to matter. If you were obese, you were more likely to be bullied, no matter what.

A funny guy I know addressed the same question:

Let nature take its course. Any day now, the fat kids will realize they have the skinny kids outnumbered, and kick their butts.

Maybe so, but perhaps there is a better way to end bullying. How can such a culturally pervasive prejudice be changed? Somehow, making fun of fat people is accepted and practiced by otherwise decent folk who would never dream of uttering a sexist remark or a racial slur. Yet, obesity is fair game. Especially among children age 6 to 9.

Gordon also interviewed Dana Rofey of Pittsburgh’s Weight Management and Wellness Center, which is connected with that city’s Children’s Hospital, who says that in the area of psychosocial problems, bullying is the most common. Professor Rofey advises pediatricians and parents to be sensitive to this issue, and gently open a way for the child to bring up any incidents or patterns of behavior that constitute bullying, and let them know you’re on their side.

But then what? More than likely, the child will indicate that you should stay out of it. Still, it’s important to show interest and concern. Rofey suggests saying something like,

It seems you have this under control right now, but let’s keep talking and checking in about it.

If a parent gets involved, then a child is vulnerable not only to teasing for being fat, but for being a Mama’s boy or similar. But if you do feel it’s necessary to intervene, Rofey says, be sure to give your kid a heads-up first, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. Another recommendation is to teach the child how to avoid getting into situations that lend themselves to bullying, although it’s hard to imagine what that might entail, other than quitting school.

Of course, home should be a haven from bullying. Yet a 2006 study found that 72% of overweight and obese women had been subjected to cruel remarks at home, and even from their parents, according to CNN reporter Madison Park. This is often done with the best intentions, by parents who somehow think it will help.

Park talked with Rebecca Puhl at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Puhl is director of a specialized area called Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives. Stigmatization is, of course, a process of marking someone out as worthy of scorn, derision, and mistreatment. Some kids get more than enough of that outside the house, they certainly don’t need parents or siblings picking on them too.

As always, it is up to the parents to set a good example by controlling their own weight and not making a whole lot of junk food available. Dealing with a overweight child takes compassion, tact, and a willingness to model the behavior of good self-care.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Bullies Target Obese Kids,” HealthDay, 05/03/11
Source: “When parent’s good intentions disparage obese children,” CNN, 05/12/10
Image by trix0r (Thomas Ricker), used under its Creative Commons license.

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