Here's the One Thing That Makes a Kid More Likely to Be Bullied in School

Sorry, Hollywood, the nerds and Goths are not the main target of abuse and harassment.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Jul 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Nerds, low-income youngsters, kids with allergies, LGBTQ youths, or students of color—it doesn’t take a repeat viewing of Mean Girls to know that children who are different tend to be on the receiving end of verbal or physical abuse from their peers. But there’s one characteristic that adults believe makes children more likely to be bullied than any other: being overweight.

About half of participants in a new study conducted by researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford identified weight as the most common reason youths are bullied by their peers—more so than race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion.

Nearly 70 percent of participants agreed bullying of obese kids is a “serious” or “very serious” problem.

Indeed, just over 20 percent of respondents said race, ethnicity, or country of origin is a common reason kids are bullied, and about 15 percent agreed a kid’s sexual orientation is the most common reason for harassment. Although we frequently see nerds getting mocked on the silver screen, only about 6 percent of respondents said academic ability was the most common reason youths are bullied.

The research is the first-ever cross-national study of the public’s perceptions of weight-based harassment of tweens and teens. For the study, which was published Monday in the journal Pediatric Obesity, researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 adults in four countries—Australia, Canada, Iceland, and the United States—about their perceptions of kids’ experiences with bullying.

Those nations were chosen because each is a democracy, and people living in them tend to highly prize thinness and physical fitness. But despite all that adoration of slim individuals, all four locales also have sky-high rates of childhood and adult obesity.

The survey respondents believe health care workers, parents, and schools should be doing more about the problem. About 75 percent said schools should implement programs designed to discourage weight-based bullying.

The majority of participants also agreed that state laws should be passed that explicitly protect bullied people who are obese; however, fewer Americans were on board with that recommendation.

“It is actually legal to discriminate on the basis of weight, and that sends a message that bias, unfair treatment or bullying of overweight children is tolerable,” Rebecca Puhl, a UConn professor and the study’s lead author told The New York Times.

Given the suicides of bullied kids over the past few years, many schools hold large assemblies at the start of the school year at which students are lectured about a campus- or district-wide zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy. This one-off approach has been criticized, but having a single school-wide conversation about the whispering campaigns and hurtful teasing that happen throughout the year seems to be better than nothing. The latest research on student harassment and abuse from the U.S. Department of Education found that 22 percent of students reported being bullied in 2013, down from 28 percent in 2011.

So, Why Should You Care? That’s a marked improvement, but it’s little consolation to the approximately 160,000 K–12 children who skip school every day because they’re afraid they’ll be taunted, called names, or physically assaulted by their peers. Meanwhile, although 49 states (Montana is the holdout) have passed laws that crack down on bullying in schools, the study’s authors note that these laws usually fail to “include weight as a distinguishing characteristic.”

RELATED: Why We're All Responsible for Taking the Fight Against Bullying Up a Notch

It’s no wonder bullying of obese kids is tolerated. Disrespect of grown folks, particularly women, who are overweight is common among adults. Last year, 50 women who participated in a study on fat shaming kept journals for a week and documented every time they were insulted or harassed because of their size. Collectively, the women cataloged an astounding 1,077 incidents.

Part of the problem is that “there is a perception that these youth are somehow to blame for their weight and in some way deserve this treatment,” said Puhl. “There’s also a widespread misperception that stigma may not be such a bad thing, and that maybe criticism will get people motivated to lose weight.”

Folks who are obese hesitate to go to a gym or a park and exercise because they’re afraid people will mock them or stare. Think back to your own physical education classes at school—gym teachers who lack empathy for overweight kids don’t simply exist in Hollywood teen flicks.

Meanwhile, about 30 percent of U.S kids are too heavy, and they’re getting teased mercilessly. As this study shows, adults know bullying because of weight is happening. It’s just a matter of deciding if we have the collective will to do something about it.