In the spring of 2011, Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, led a study on bullying against children and adolescents struggling with their weight and body image. Though this problem has been well-documented in past studies, Puhl discovered two alarming trends: One, that several children reported abuse from trusted adults such as their own parents, and two, that losing weight did not necessarily result in an end to the bullying. Puhl spoke with the News on Sunday afternoon about her findings, which were published in Pediatrics journal at the end of December 2012.
Q: Can you briefly explain how you set up this study? Who were the participants, and how were they observed?
A: This was a sample of 361 adolescents who were attending weight-loss camps. These kids were overweight or obese. We asked them about different kinds of bullying they were experiencing like verbal teasing, physical aggression, cyberbullying and relational victimization (getting ignored or excluded, harassed, etc.).
Q: What kind of data did you obtain?
A: We found, not surprisingly, that peers and friends are the most common perpetrators of weight-based bullying; however, what was really surprising to us was the very high percentages of teachers and parents who were also reported as sources. We had about 42 percent of physical education teachers and 37 percent of parents [reported to be sources of mistreatment].
Q: Given that this data is filtered through the children, are you concerned at all that they might misinterpret certain messages from these adults as bullying?
A: Well, this is what we deal with for every kind of bullying, a child’s perception, and we have to take that seriously. These are adolescents who are 14–18 years old, they’re pretty accurate. They know what they’ve experienced, so I think we have to treat their perceptions as very legitimate.
Q: As for the issue with parents: Any clue as to why this problem exists?
A: When we think about parents, we obviously want to think about them as being supportive, but I think what happens is that, when parents have a child who is struggling with their weight, sometimes the parental concern can be expressed in ways that are very damaging to their children.
Q: Noting that we have this issue of bullying from parents, do you see a lot of parental involvement in trying to get their kids’ weights down?
A: I think in general, parents have concerns if their child is struggling with weight and they want to do the right thing. What we know is that the efforts are not successful very often unless the whole family participates. It’s more about changing to healthy lifestyles for the entire family rather than just pointing fingers at the one child. That’s where parents can be extremely supportive.
Q: Can you talk about those children who did go on to lose weight and still continued to suffer from bullying?
A: You know, that’s a really interesting find, and it happens with adults, too. There’s this idea of residual stigma, and it’s not entirely clear what is contributing to this. It may be that these students happen to be bullied by the same perpetrators over time. I think that’s an issue that we really do need to look at. There have been other studies that show that kids get teased about their weight if they’re underweight as well, and I think this highlights how prevalent body weight is as a reason for being teased. There is a lot of national attention right now to anti-bullying programs in youth, and these are extremely important programs to be focusing on, but really, weight-based bullying has not been a part of the national discourse. We need to make sure this issue is really on the radar.
Q: Has bullying historically been a source of motivation for overweight kids to lose weight?
A: No, that’s a really common perception for both kids and adults — this perception that if people get stigmatized enough, that will serve as an incentive for weight loss. Actually, we see the opposite pattern occurring. When kids or adults are bullied about their weight, they actually engage in behaviors that can reinforce obesity. In fact, stigma not only doesn’t provide motivation, but it can actually reinforce the problem.
Q: At these camps, how are the kids taught to cope with mistreatment?
A: They use the same anti-bullying strategies that are recommended for all forms of bullying, and those often involve finding a different school environment, having parents talk to the teachers and principal and really getting involved, brainstorming strategies to really avoid or prevent or intervene when it happens. But in terms of coping, this is where support is so crucial, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so concerning that parents were reported to be so high in terms of bullying because if kids are getting teased at school, then we really need parents to step up and to provide support at home. If parents are also a source of teasing, then who is left as an ally? That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to publish this study. We need to help parents become sources of support rather than sources of stigma.