Telling Kids "Don't Be Fat!" Is a High-Risk Message
The school year has started, which means it's bullying season again for fat children and teens. Fat children in grade school are 63 percent more likely to be teased, according to a 2010 study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics' journal Pediatrics.
The authors seemed surprised by the extent of weight-based bullying.
"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," said pediatrician Dr. Julie Lumeng.
The federal government is doing its part. President Barack Obama last week declared September to be Childhood Obesity Awareness Month for the second year. On the playground, "awareness" means pointing a finger and shouting, "Hey, fatty!"
The presidential proclamation dovetails with first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, which has the goal of "solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation." (In other words, "No fat chicks -- er, children!")
I challenge anyone to name a jurisdiction where weight-loss campaigns have had long-term results, much less done no harm. (A mandatory student weight-loss program in Singapore coincided with a sixfold increase in eating disorders among youth.)
"Don't be fat!" is a high-risk message.
Teens who perceive themselves as "too fat" -- regardless of what they actually weigh -- are more likely to think about suicide and attempt suicide, according to a 2005 study.
In April, two 14-year-old best friends in Minnesota, Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz, died in a shared suicide. Haylee was teased for her weight and her red hair. Haylee's aunt, Robin Settle, said that although Haylee wasn't "severely overweight," she was so self-conscious she rarely ate at school.
I first learned about what's now called bullycide among fat youth in 1994.
Brian Head was 15. One day, students were pulling his hair and slapping him. He had been bullied for his weight since seventh grade. He shot himself. In a poem discovered later, Brian described himself, "as an insignificant 'thing,' something to be traded, mangled, and mocked," reports Barbara Colorosa, author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander. Brian's father successfully lobbied for a law in Georgia that makes bullying a crime.
I started giving weight diversity talks because of Brian's death. It was scary to go back to the kinds of places where I was teased for being fat and speak against that very thing. (My first talk was to seventh graders in a health education class.) But I found young people of all sizes crave reassurance about bullying and about their appearance.
Brian's death wasn't the last weight-related bullycide. In 1996, I heard about 12-year-old Samuel Graham, who hanged himself from the family's backyard tree rather than start junior high and face taunts about his weight.
In 1997, English teen Kelly Yeomans was teased for weeks about her weight. She told her family, "It's nothing to do with you.... I have had enough and I'm going to take an overdose." Cream bassist Jack Bruce wrote a song, "Kelly's Blues," to try to save other teens via the Daily Record newspaper's Save Our Kids appeal in Scotland.
In 2004, eighth-grader April Himes skipped 53 days of school to avoid weight-based bullying. School officials were unable to stop the harassment, but they also informed her she must attend or face a truancy board and possible juvenile detention. At that news, she hanged herself.
Last month, a Maryland mother killed her son, Ben Barnhard, and then herself. Her ex-husband speculated that she thought he was better off dead than being bullied again for his weight when the school year started. (News reports say financial and other concerns were also involved.) Ben had appeared on a TV show called Too Fat for Fifteen when he attended a weight-loss academy.
In the early 1980s, identical twins Michaela and Samantha Kendall were teased at school for being fat. At age 14, they started dieting to avoid the teasing. They developed anorexia and later died from it. (Warning: The photos you'll see on the above link are really hard to look at.)
I hope Malissa Jones escapes their fate. In 2009, when she was 17, she was the youngest person in England to undergo gastric bypass. Media reports labeled her "Britain's fattest teen." In May, they reported she's fighting for her life because of anorexia.
These are just the tragic stories I happen to know about.
Fat children try to defend themselves. Six-year-old LaNiyah Bailey wrote her first book, Not Fat Because I Wanna Be this year. Her next book is called, Stand Up!...Bully Busters Are Coming to Town.
Australian teen Casey Heynes suffered weight bullying for years before he fought back and attracted praise from hundreds of thousands of people who saw a videotape of the incident online.
Despite the high risk and impact of bullying on young fat people, the Safe Schools Act of 2010 does not include weight in the list of protected categories. Last month, National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance leaders held a press conference at the National Press Club asking lawmakers to address this "egregious oversight." NAAFA has created an excellent Child Advocacy Toolkit for people who seek to make schools safe for children of all sizes.
Even National Geographic last month published on its education website an article promoting Health at Every Size instead of weight-loss goals for youth.
We should not tell fat children that they must change because bullies won't.
If we care about the health and well-being of fat children, we'll protect them from bullies, whether they take individual or institutional form. If we care about the health and well-being of children of all sizes, we'll remove weight stigma and weight-loss goals from nutrition and exercise advice.
"Don't be fat!" is not a health message, it's a hate message.
Marilyn Wann made it out of adolescence alive, thanks to family, friends, teachers, school officials, and timing (her childhood happened before the war on "obesity") -- and no thanks to her bullies. She considers herself lucky.