COMMENTARY

The Pervasive Problem of Weight-Based Bullying in Youth

Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD

Disclosures

October 29, 2014

In This Article

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Overweight and obesity affect one third of youth in the United States. These high rates of childhood obesity have been coupled with considerable research documenting pervasive bullying and teasing of these youth because of their weight.

As early as preschool, youngsters express negative and stereotypical attitudes toward peers who are perceived as overweight,[1] and by elementary school, weight-based teasing and bullying are well established.[2] Youth with obesity are significantly more likely to be bullied than their thinner classmates, and longitudinal evidence indicates that a child's likelihood of being teased or bullied in the future can be predicted by his or her weight status.[3,4]

At school, weight-based bullying is reported by adolescents to be among the most frequent forms of peer harassment.[5,6] Parents similarly view weight-based bullying to be the most common form of bullying that youth face, irrespective of parents' or their child's weight.[7] Further corroborating these findings are teachers who report a link between high body mass index (BMI) and victimization.[8]

A 2011 study by the National Education Association found that teachers across the country viewed weight-based bullying to be the most problematic form of bullying in school.[9] Furthermore, the annual survey of adolescents (n = 1572) that was just released by PACER'S National Bullying Prevention Center found that among teenagers who witnessed bullying, 62% reported that body weight was a common motivator for peers being harassed.[10]

Complicating this problem further is that weight-based teasing and bullying are not limited to peers in the school setting. Increasingly, research has documented youth reports of weight-based victimization from parents and family members, and even teachers. For example, in a study of adolescents with obesity enrolled in national weight-loss camps (n = 361), 37% reported being teased or bullied about their weight from parents, and 27% reported these experiences from teachers.[11]

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