Obese Kids Still Targeted by Bullying


How many excuses can a bully find for picking on another kid? Well let’s see, there’s color, religion, sex, economic status, and, of course, size. And childhood obesity isn’t even the issue here, obesity being defined as a Body Mass Index at or above the 95th percentile. A kid can qualify as a victim with nothing more than a case of childhood chubbiness, a technical term that means “just fat enough to be seen as cute by grownups but persecuted by young thugs.”

HealthDay writer Serena Gordon affirms that even a moderately overweight child can attract bullying:

[… F]actors that usually play a role in the risk of being bullied, such as gender, race and family income levels, don’t seem to matter if you’re overweight — being overweight or obese trumps all those other factors when it comes to aggressive behavior from other children.

This unhappy news is the result of a study done at the Center for Human Growth and Development, which is attached to the University of Michigan. Dr. Julie Lumeng and her team wondered whether bullying might have begun to fade, now that overweight kids are so common. They constructed an inquiry that involved 821 young people from 10 different American locales. Guess what? Study author Lumeng says,

[…] What we found, much to our dismay, was that nothing seemed to matter. If you were obese, you were more likely to be bullied, no matter what.

A funny guy I know addressed the same question:

Let nature take its course. Any day now, the fat kids will realize they have the skinny kids outnumbered, and kick their butts.

Maybe so, but perhaps there is a better way to end bullying. How can such a culturally pervasive prejudice be changed? Somehow, making fun of fat people is accepted and practiced by otherwise decent folk who would never dream of uttering a sexist remark or a racial slur. Yet, obesity is fair game. Especially among children age 6 to 9.

Gordon also interviewed Dana Rofey of Pittsburgh’s Weight Management and Wellness Center, which is connected with that city’s Children’s Hospital, who says that in the area of psychosocial problems, bullying is the most common. Professor Rofey advises pediatricians and parents to be sensitive to this issue, and gently open a way for the child to bring up any incidents or patterns of behavior that constitute bullying, and let them know you’re on their side.

But then what? More than likely, the child will indicate that you should stay out of it. Still, it’s important to show interest and concern. Rofey suggests saying something like,

It seems you have this under control right now, but let’s keep talking and checking in about it.

If a parent gets involved, then a child is vulnerable not only to teasing for being fat, but for being a Mama’s boy or similar. But if you do feel it’s necessary to intervene, Rofey says, be sure to give your kid a heads-up first, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. Another recommendation is to teach the child how to avoid getting into situations that lend themselves to bullying, although it’s hard to imagine what that might entail, other than quitting school.

Of course, home should be a haven from bullying. Yet a 2006 study found that 72% of overweight and obese women had been subjected to cruel remarks at home, and even from their parents, according to CNN reporter Madison Park. This is often done with the best intentions, by parents who somehow think it will help.

Park talked with Rebecca Puhl at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Puhl is director of a specialized area called Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives. Stigmatization is, of course, a process of marking someone out as worthy of scorn, derision, and mistreatment. Some kids get more than enough of that outside the house, they certainly don’t need parents or siblings picking on them too.

As always, it is up to the parents to set a good example by controlling their own weight and not making a whole lot of junk food available. Dealing with a overweight child takes compassion, tact, and a willingness to model the behavior of good self-care.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Bullies Target Obese Kids,” HealthDay, 05/03/11
Source: “When parent’s good intentions disparage obese children,” CNN, 05/12/10
Image by trix0r (Thomas Ricker), used under its Creative Commons license.

4 Responses

  1. Bullying Issue: Obesity Issue
    Together and united we will make a difference.
    Family, friends galore, schools, churches, YMCA’s, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc join the Nationwide Rock It Across America Challenge to help change the culture of bullying, encourage a safer learning atmosphere and environment for students and educators while kids get fit and healthy. United, teamwork, connected there is power showing nationwide support that all of us are on one accord confirming every child is important and bullying is not acceptable. Texas kids want to change the culture of bullying nationwide with their new and unique character building dance/exercise CD/DVD called Rock It, that has anti-bully input, builds self-esteem, builds confidence, encourages compassion, patience, peace, self-control and instill values while providing an effective workout.

    The challenge is for everyone to Rock It at least 5 minutes a day for a year to promote a happy and healthy mind and body. It sets a positive tone for the day. Everyone can download a FREE Rock It 5 minute jump start version at http://www.rockingitforlife.com to kick off the new year on a positive note with good vibes while moving and grooving with a positive attitude. Rock It compliments all character building programs. Rock It long version is excellent for PE. I Rock anti-bully pledge is also unique and it helps to really make a difference. Even adults transform from the inside out as they Rock It. Spread the word across the nation. Every child is important. Every child matters. This is how parents can help make a difference. Everyone complains about the bullying, now let’s join forces to help kids learn compassion and more while getting fit. Senator please send a press release, something so the word can get out to join the nationwide Rock It Across America Challenge. A family moves a thousand miles away to a new town. Their child is relieved and comforted knowing his/her new school is Rocking It too.

  2. Among my own interests is the childhood obesity-school bullying link and PTSD, a topic close to the questions so well expressed in this article. In a nutshell, our government’s concern regarding K-12 students’ weight may translate into a misguided educator’s use of anything to appease harried administrators, themselves under state pressure to show slimmer youngsters. Well-intentioned academic personnel (especially in physical education) frequently view this anything as “tough love” – i.e., overly-aggressive training in hot weather, name-calling or other forms of “just kidding” in front of the victim’s peers. According to my research, the humiliated child, powerless before faculty, often resorts to toxic coping mechanisms – an eating binge in private, accidental overdose on an OTC weight reduction drug from a health food store, or even suicide ideation. I would be honored to join anyone interested in looking at this dilemma before another tormented pupil considers taking his or her own life.

    1. Thank you for your comment Dr. Abramson. Bullying of overweight kids is a horrific byproduct of keeping obesity in the closet, providing continual ammunition for the bullies. If obesity were openly discussed as a medical entity, similar to asthma, high blood pressure, or diabetes, this would neutralize much of the bully’s ammunition. This is even more compelling in light of the emerging evidence of the brain physiology basis of obesity. We’d love to ally with you in neutralizing the ammunition.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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