How Teasing About Someone's Weight Can Affect Their Body Image

Upset girl standing in a school hallway; two girls teasing

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Although anyone can be bullied for just about anything, weight always seems to attract the attention of bullies. Tweens and teens who are underweight, those who are obese, and even those that are normal weight can be targeted. Often targeted because of the way they look, kids who are bullied because of how much they weigh or the way their bodies look often become dissatisfied with how they look. The end result is a body image problem.

Body image has to do with how people think about their size and their shape and is an important part of identity. In fact, how a young person views her body directly relates to how she thinks about herself as a whole.

Consequently, a negative body image can lead to low self-esteem, which in turn, leads to other problems. In fact, many people with negative body images struggle with eating disorders, depression and may even engage in self-harming behaviors.

The Problem With Weight Teasing

For overweight children, losing weight is not easy. But when you add in bullying, it becomes even more difficult. These kids can feel trapped, alone and helpless to change their situations. What’s more, it is not just mean girls who are initiating weight teasing.

Studies have shown that the victim's friends, teachers, coaches, and even their parents might participate. They use subtle forms of bullying or relational aggression to bully and tease. Or, they may use what is called a “license to comment.” In other words, they feel it is acceptable to make comments about the person’s weight. They also might comment on what they are eating, what they order in restaurants, their clothes and how they spend their time.

Most of the time, these weight-related comments sound like helpful hints. But in reality, the words are judgmental and critical, and kids get the message loud and clear. They feel bad about themselves and their bodies, which results in a negative body image.

Weight teasing also can create a vicious cycle where these kids begin to eat more to get rid of negative feelings. Then, they suffer from guilt and shame afterward and the cycle repeats itself.

There also is some evidence that overweight children who are subjected to weight-related teasing are less likely to exercise. They are not being lazy. Instead, they fear that they will be made fun of during their activities. Or, they worry that others will judge or criticize how fast they can run or how many push-ups they can do.

What Can Be Done?​

Most people think that the first step to dealing with weight-related bullying is to help a child lose weight. But really, the child cannot focus on losing weight and getting healthy while dealing with cutting remarks and criticisms. As a result, the bullying and teasing has to stop first.

If your child has experienced weight-related bullying, focus on building acceptance for who she is instead of focusing on losing or gaining weight. Children need to be happy with who they are to recover from negative body image. Losing or gaining weight is secondary.

If you or other family members are making comments about your child’s weight, stop immediately. And, if the bullying is happening at school, it needs to be addressed right away. Make a commitment to report the bullying to the principal. Ask what he plans to do to keep your child emotionally safe at school. Meanwhile, you can help your child overcome bullying by encouraging her to reframe her thinking and focus what is good about who she is. 

Once the bullying has been dealt with, you can begin by promoting healthy eating and exercise habits. In addition, you should help boost self-esteem and resilience by focusing on positive attributes and not on weight. Also, avoid congratulating your child on weight loss. Instead, encourage her to participate in activities that will build self-confidence. And congratulate her on her success in those areas. Doing so will show your child that her worth is not tied up in her appearance.

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