How Obesity and Bullying Are Connected

There is a complex relationship between obesity and bullying. While kids with excess weight are frequently targeted for abuse at school, there also are instances where they are the ones who engage in bullying others. Still other kids with obesity are trapped in a bully-victim cycle where they are both victim and perpetrator.

Clearly, there also is an uncomfortable cause-and-effect to the bullying experienced by kids with obesity. In some cases, bullying can even contribute to childhood obesity, as food often becomes a comforting distraction from the abuse they are forced to endure.

Vulnerability to Bullying

While there are many reasons why bullies target certain individuals for abuse, overweight kids are a particularly easy mark given that society tends to disapprove of and mock obesity, both actively and discreetly.

Even if a kid with obesity has all of the traits that typically discourage bullying, such as good social skills or strong academic standing, they may remain at risk. This is due, in part, to the fact that bullies can sense vulnerabilities in others and are more than willing to exploit those things. In a body-conscious society, even a well-adjusted kid with excess weight can suffer self-esteem issues that bullies are all too eager to prey upon.

Abuse Related to Weight

The amount of abuse a child receives is often directly related to their weight. A 2015 study in Italy involving 947 elementary school kids concluded that normal-weight children and children with excess weight were far less likely to be bullied than their counterparts with obesity and severe obesity.

Among the findings:

  • 44.4% of kids with severe obesity experienced name-calling compared to 10.1% of children at a healthy weight and 20.6% of overweight kids.
  • 21% of kids with severe obesity experienced physical victimization compared to 5.4% of typical-weight children and 8.7% of overweight kids.
  • 18.5% of children with severe obesity were excluded from group activities compared to 5.4% of children without excess weight and 10.4% of overweight kids.

Bully-Victims

The reasons why kids with obesity become bullies are even more complex. Most studies suggest that children with obesity bully because they are either reflecting the same behavior they've experienced (known as bully-victims) or they are acting preemptively to discourage others from bullying them.

Rather than seeing their weight as a deficit, bullies with obesity may use their size to their advantage, allowing them to wield more power over a smaller victim.

Bullies with excess weight are often emotionally conflicted, exhibiting aggression on the one hand while fighting feelings of inadequacy on the other.

Obesity as Cause and Effect

This is, perhaps, best illustrated in the Italian study, which found that children with severe obesity were twice as likely to be bully-victims than normal-weight kids and that normal-weight kids were four times more likely to be bullies than severely obese ones. This suggests that aggression, at least in kids with obesity, is both a cause and effect of bullying behaviors.

This cause-and-effect can also lead to contradictory behaviors. For example, while food may be a source of comfort at times of crisis, it can also confirm feelings of hopelessness and self-loathing in severely overweight children.

How to Break the Bullying Cycle

Breaking the bullying cycle is difficult in even the best of circumstances. With children with obesity, it may require you to deal with the emotional issues related to weight, as well as those entirely unrelated to weight.

If your child is the target of bullying, the National Crime Prevention Council recommends that you:

  • Remind your child that they are not to blame.
  • Talk to your child about how they are feeling. Bullying can bring up emotions that extend well beyond the abuse itself.
  • Speak to your child's teacher about the bully instead of confronting the bully's parents.
  • Go to the principal if the teacher doesn't act to stop the bullying.
  • Teach your child to be assertive and to stand up for themself verbally, not violently.
  • Build your child's confidence by praising their strengths rather than pointing out any flaws. This may be especially true for kids with excess weight.

If your child is a bully, there are several things you can do as well, including:

  • Take bullying seriously. Do not treat it as a phase your child is going through.
  • Talk to your child to find out why they are bullying.
  • Be a good example. Children will often act out the behaviors they see at home.
  • Teach empathy. If you see examples of people being bullied on TV or in books, talk to your child about it.
  • Seek professional help if your child has emotional issues that you are unable to resolve yourself.

A Word From Verywell

Overall, there is a complicated relationship between obesity and bullying. By educating yourself about the connections between the two, you can better understand how to intervene with care and compassion in overweight kids' bullying situations.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Janssen I, Craig WM, Boyce WF, Pickett W. Associations between overweight and obesity with bullying behaviors in school-aged children. Pediatrics. 2004;113(5):1187-94. doi:10.1542/peds.113.5.1187

  2. National Eating Disorders Association. Bullying and eating disorders.

  3. Bacchini D, Licenziati M, Garrasi A et al. Bullying and victimization in overweight and obese outpatient children and adolescents: An Italian multicentric study. PLoS One. 2015;10(11):e0142715. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142715

  4. Sansone RA, Sansone LA. Bully victims: psychological and somatic aftermaths. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2008;5(6):62-4.

  5. National Crime Prevention Council. What to teach kids about bullying.

  6. Nemours KidsHealth. Teaching kids not to bully.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.