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Overweight Kids and Discrimination

by Nancy Witting

Weight bias is widespread

There's a lot of talk these days about the "obesity epidemic" in the U.S., and with good reason. The overall rate of obesity has doubled in the past 20 years, and it has tripled in teens. Twenty percent of kids are overweight, and statistics show that most will become overweight adults. Better nutrition and exercise are certainly part of the formula for reversing this trend. But according to Jennifer Pomeranz at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, we won't be able to solve the obesity crisis until we address weight bias in our society.

Damaging Stereotypes

Weight bias is the most widespread form of prejudice in our culture – more widespread than racial or religious bias. There is generally very little sympathy for the overweight, and damaging stereotypes are pervasive. According to studies, the weight stigma begins as early as age three, because adults instill this negative attitude in their kids. Lazy, ugly, stupid, and disgusting are just a few of the hurtful epithets familiar to the obese. Parents of overweight kids may believe that criticism will motivate them to lose weight, but the opposite is true: Too many disparaging remarks can drive kids to binge eating and avoidance of exercise.

The effects of weight bias on our obese children are especially harmful. They endure physical abuse and social exclusion from their peers, and verbal abuse from both their peers and adults. By high school, they may actually be victims of group aggression and mobbing. Some who have been bullied become bullies in self-defense. Many suffer from loneliness, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor body image. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not uncommon.

Both teachers and peers discriminate
Weight Bias in School

According to the National Education Association, the school experience for fat students is "one of ongoing prejudice, unnoticed discrimination, and almost constant harassment.... From nursery school through college, fat students experience ostracism, discouragement, and sometimes violence."

Unfortunately, teachers are just as likely to discriminate against overweight students as anyone else. A number of studies confirm teacher bias, with these findings:

  • Teachers have lower expectations for overweight students (compared to thinner students) across a range of ability areas.
  • Teachers say overweight students are untidy, more emotional, less likely to succeed at work, and more likely to have family problems.
  • In one study, 43 percent of teachers agreed that "most people feel uncomfortable when they associate with obese people."
Negative attitudes from teachers, combined with teasing and social exclusion by peers, make overweight youth more vulnerable to depression and more likely to miss days of school than their non-obese peers. And shockingly, obese students are significantly less likely to be accepted for admission to college, despite comparable academic performance.
There's a lot parents can do to help

How Parents Can Help

You can stop adding to the hurt your obese child is suffering by changing your own negative attitude and providing concrete help:

  • Educate yourself about the causes of obesity and the failure rate of most diets.
  • Avoid "fat talk" (e.g., "I feel so fat today"), which places undue importance on thinness.
  • Be an advocate for weight tolerance, along with racial and religious tolerance, and identify positive role models with diverse body types for your child.
  • Remind your child often of all his strengths as a person, and reinforce his right not to be treated badly by anyone.
  • Keep the lines of communication open, so your child will feel comfortable coming to you with problems.
  • If you suspect that your child is being teased, ask specific questions about his day: "What did you do during recess today?" Try to retain a neutral stance when your child tells you about a difficult situation.
  • You might tell your child about your own childhood experiences with being teased, and describe how it made you feel and how you handled it.
  • Try role playing an incident with your child to help him practice nonaggressive ways of handling it.
  • Teach him helpful tactics such as reporting aggressive or abusive behavior, and staying near friends or adult supervisors.
  • Stand up for your child if you witness any teasing or negative comments, and recognize when to intervene.
  • If teasing has gotten out of hand or your child has been physically attacked, it's time to meet with the school counselor. You should also encourage school officials to adopt and enforce policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, or bullying on school property.

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