The Pervasive Problem of Weight-Based Bullying in Youth

Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD


October 29, 2014

In This Article

The Role of Healthcare Professionals

In light of these challenges, how can health professionals help address weight-based victimization and better protect children from its damaging consequences? Given that youth are reporting weight-based victimization at both school and home, healthcare providers may be one of few remaining allies who can intervene, or at least bring attention to this problem.

Health professionals who work with children and families can look for signs of weight-based teasing or bullying, or related emotional distress, such as depression, anxiety, or low-self esteem. In children with these symptoms, providers can share concerns with parents, and ask whether there is a support system in place to help the child cope with bullying experiences.

Health providers should also think carefully about the language that they use when discussing body weight with children and parents. Using judgmental or stigmatizing language can hinder important discussions with families and potentially interfere with healthcare utilization. For example, 35% of parents reported that they would seek a new doctor for their child and 24% would avoid future medical appointments for their child if they perceived weight stigmatization from their child's doctor.[25] Thus, using appropriate and sensitive weight-based terminology may help facilitate positive and productive discussions about health with families.

In addition to implementing these strategies in clinical practice, health providers can support broader policy efforts to better protect youth from weight-based bullying and its consequences. Many school districts across the United States have anti-bullying policies in place, but few of the policies acknowledge body weight as putting youth at risk for bullying. Furthermore, 49 US states have school-based anti-bullying laws, but only three (Maine, New York, and New Hampshire) include body weight or physical appearance as a distinguishing characteristic. This makes it unclear whether students are protected from weight-based bullying under existing provisions.

Recent national studies indicate that over 75% of parents are in favor of strengthening school-based anti-bullying laws to specifically include body weight as a distinguishing characteristic and to boost protections against weight-based bullying for students.[26] Health professionals can be important supporters of these types of policy changes. Voices from the medical and health communities in particular may be key in motivating political will to improve existing policies and laws in this area, so that youth with weight problems do not continue to suffer pervasive victimization and resulting impaired health from these damaging experiences.


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