Overweight Children and the Adults who (Unintentionally) Bully Them: Let’s Stop the Torment Today

Recently, The New York Times published an article by Harriet Brown which described the victimization that overweight children often face. We’ve all heard stories of peer bullying, but this article presents a clear message that trusted adults can also be the bullies, even if they are “just trying to help.” In an attempt to tease a child or voice concerns about weight issues playfully, parents, teachers, or other important figures may make passing comments about the child’s weight. These remarks can range from commentary about food habits or clothing fit to a more explicit push for a new diet. What adults do not realize is that although they intend the comment to be motivational, they can be degrading to a child. Coming from a trusted adult, these statements can be even more devastating than deliberate jabs from peers. The article underscores this point with statistics from a survey given to 350 teens who attended a weight loss camp: 35-40 percent said they had experienced bullying comments by gym teachers, coaches, and parents, a troubling number.

Reading this article made me think about Erica (name changed for privacy sake), my friend from grade school who once received comments from a well-intentioned aunt. Erica, while not overweight, had a rounder figure. In trying to playfully show concern that Erica was gaining weight, her aunt asked, “so how far along are you?” implying that Erica looked so heavy she could be pregnant. That year, I remember Erica really struggled with her weight and loving herself. Years later, the story still sticks out in my mind. It taught me a valuable lesson at the heart of the article. We need to choose our words carefully as we never know which comments will resonate with someone for the rest of his or her life.

Children today are inundated with messages about their weight and shape from peers and the media. Let’s not add to these messages. We should cut all fat talk, body snarking, and body shaming and refrain from engaging in any insensitive commentary—not just with children, but with other adults and ourselves. If there is a need to have a discussion about a child’s weight, please do so carefully. As the article mentions, instead of focusing on weight, we should encourage happy and healthy lifestyles for our children. I know I’d rather be remembered decades later for something encouraging I said about someone rather than for a snarky body comment—whether intentional or unintentional—that undercut her self-esteem.

(For more tips on how to talk to children about weight and shape and stop fat talk, please scroll down to the bottom of The New York Times article. The authors include powerful advice from experts in the field.)

By: Kate Nowlan