Telling Kids "Don't Be Fat!" Is a High-Risk Message

LR_Marilyn_Wann_by_Mark_Richards.jpg
Mark Richards
Marilyn Wann
Trigger warning: bullying, teen suicide, eating disorders.

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.

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34 comments
Aleina Mamun
Aleina Mamun

We should coddle our kids and tell them they are perfect no matter how much candy and soda they swallow everyday. no kid should ever be teased because it might cause them develop a thicker skin that will prepare them for the real world. /end sarcastic rant.http://goo.gl/MhSwj

Raul
Raul

Honestly, people like her are why our country is going downhill. The lack of tough love for children makes them lazy, mediocre underachievers who expect to be rewarded for everything. It's not okay to be severely overweight. It's unhealthy and almost always (unless you have a legitimate medical condition) entirely the person's fault. And parents should let their children know this instead of saying it's fine and handing them another bag of Doritos. 

Elf-cat
Elf-cat

Oh yes, it's not the billionaires and war profiteers and speculators who keep themselves nice and svelte inhaling cocaine on their yachts and vaporizing every fat cell with lasers and lipo until they look like hard plastic, it's those mediocre fat people who are taking the country down. I went to school. I saw fat kids, especially the girls; they didn't mostly expect to be rewarded for much of anything. They often expected to be hurt if they didn't keep their heads way down. I remember girls who were nowhere near "obese" who shied away from getting their pictures taken because they thought they were too fat.  And speaking of donuts, I brought some to a fat girl I was dating once and she scolded me outright. I've always been a skinnyass and I eat at least as much sugar and fat as any of the fat people I've met. Scapegoating a whole category of people is step one to genocide, every time.

MarilynWann
MarilynWann

I want children of all sizes to enjoy good nutrition and fun physical activity, because it feels good and is good for them. You, Asdf, evidently don't think that's good enough without a heaping portion of weight-based hate.

Asdf
Asdf

Wahhhh I can't hear over the sound of your fatass eating donuts.

LeeDorsey
LeeDorsey

The only reason anyone is overweight in the first place is eating too much and doing too little.Monitor your kids activity. Keep them outdoors every day until sunset!. If you are overweight, whatever you do don't let them eat what you do! Do you see that picture?! This is a woman whose only joy in life is stuffing her face. I refuse to pay for her Type II Diabetes or any lower body oint care... and as she will soon be in an electric cart, I also will not pay for that. 

MarilynWann
MarilynWann

Careful, your inaccurate assumptions and your meanness (not to mention prejudice) are showing, LeeDorsey.

MkeB
MkeB

Telling kids don't be fat and then letting eat what ever the hell they want, is a higher risk message!

MarilynWann
MarilynWann

MkeB, I hope you will read a bit about the Health At Every Size(tm) approach to healthy, enjoyable, worry-free eating. I don't encourage either option you present.

Nicholas Reichart
Nicholas Reichart

Funny how you mention casey, looks like he became a better person because of the bullying. He learned to stand up for himself.

Alex Ray
Alex Ray

//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!")//Oh, so now telling kids that to exercise and eat right is discriminatory?  Are hot dogs and sloth PC now?

Being slightly overweight can be healthy.  If you eat right and exercise, but are somewhat over weight, I do not doubt that you can be healthy.  But if you are significantly obese, which is a real problem, even the mere fact of the weight of the fat pressing against the organs can cause health problems, and obesity is linked with blood pressure, heart disease, etc, even with activity.  And the fact is that if you eat well and work out, being obese itself is rather difficult.

common sense consumer
common sense consumer

I never endorsed "diet program, drug, or surgery" in my post.  I suggested folks use common sense to eat healthy foods in reasonable portions & being active, and that we create systems/opportunities/policies to make that happen.  that INCLUDES people who people who have a "healthy" BMI, but eat junk & are slugs. 

yes, there are a small percentage of people who are "destined" to be overweight because of genes or a medical condition.  but for MOST PEOPLE, eating healthy foods in reasonable portions & being active will help them reach & maintain a healthy weight (again, I am not saying go on a diet).  a "healthy weight" being one that does not contribute to higher risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. etc. etc.

OF COURSE you will find a few studies that say being overweight does not contribute to health problems.  but the VAST MAJORITY of studies support the link between healthy weight & better health outcomes. people DO "die of being fat." End. Of. Story.

Quib
Quib

If you want to reach people who are heavier and folks with "healthy BMI" equally, why should weight even enter into the conversation?

Is there any reason to put emphasis on how people look over what they are doing and how they are taking care of themselves?

It seems to me if a "healthy weight" will just happen if you're eating right and exercising, you should just ask people what they are eating and how the exercise and not waste any attention on how big around they are.

Jackie Yoshi
Jackie Yoshi

Very good article! I was always blamed in high school for the abuse I derived from bullies. Bullies seem to behave psychopathically, meaning they know how to act in front of authority figures if they get caught, and how to twist the story to make them look like the victim. I ended up cutting myself all through high school. This was because the bully never was delt with, my Special Ed teachers at one point thought I was antisocial. I was acting antisocial, as that was the only way I had to defend myself from being bullied. Later I was diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome, along with depression and PTSD.

No child should come back from school having the same diagnoses as a war veteran. That's how bad bullying has become. Nothing is worse then punishing the victim, and teaching them learned helplessness. That no matter what they do, it won't stop, and nobody will help them. This is why children are resorting to eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulemia, because either they starve themselves, or they are emotionally tortured.

For the people who bothered posting here about the other side of obesity being the boogeyman that will kill people. There are THOUSANDS of sites, with that ignorant and uninformed point of view. Surely you can find one of those sites, to gain support from. Rather then adding more HATE to the conversation here. Weight is 88% heritable. People do not die from being fat, and thin people also die. People may die from diseases or ill health, but due to the ongoing prejudice in our society, it will be written they died from being fat, not the actual diagnoses of what they died from. You are contributing to poor healthcare when you suggest that fat = death. You are contributing to more children killing themselves by starvation, when you suggest being fat is wrong. Stop being a problem, and start being a part of the solution. Aim to end the hate, not throw around ignorant prejudices and fearmongering. 

Krishna Dukes
Krishna Dukes

oh, and I was 270 and 6'7" at sixteen, my nickname was bubblebutt, and or fatass.I was bullied all the time, I spent some time at 240 6'!0" playing basketball, which I did to 290. I currently swim, bike, fight  1 to 2 hours a day. 345-350 51. (Just saying, my house ain't glass. Lived through all that.)

Marilyn Wann
Marilyn Wann

"Don't be fat" does not result in decreased weight or increased health. It does promote prejudice. I like your example - exactly my point: being active and eating well supports best health whatever we weigh. I'm sorry you're invested in your internalized anti-fat attitudes.I

Krishna Dukes
Krishna Dukes

Umm. No. Don't be fat is a health message. So is don't hate yourself. So is Don't bully others.

 signed -  Fat enough to be a Poly 6'10" 465, now a svelte 345, 6'10" just fat black guy 45" waist. Hoping to be 320 40".

ps. blood pressure went from 164/104 to 117/78. I don't care about appearance over weight. As long as I can work out two hrs a day, have good blood work, and a great BP/HR, I'll take it. It's only vanity that makes me chase the no dunlop clause, and I'm having a great time just the way I am.

Lisarutland
Lisarutland

Hi Marilyn

You're my hero. Thank you for being brave enough to face this issue head on and spread your message of acceptance, for everyone. I appreciate the good it does. I'm right there with you. Bullying is not OK, no matter what the excuse. I'd go a step further and say judgements about a persons health or lack of it are not OK at all. Mind your own business.

GimliGirl
GimliGirl

Thanks so much for this, Marilyn! Well said, as always.

Amy Loskota Mireault
Amy Loskota Mireault

Thank you Marilyn.  I love the pic and I just want to comment it does NOT stop when you leave High School.  I am 35 and so-called morbidly obese due to PCOS and my medications that MAKE me gain weight.  I CANNOT exercise outside my house on bike or on foot without people driving by me and screaming, yelling, taking pictures on cell phones, or throwing things at me in one of the most liberal towns in the western USA.  I try to bear through it but 50 pounds ago another of the most liberal towns my happy walks and beach combings were interrupted by the same.Deep in my heart, I want to get mad.  I want to shoot out their tires.  I want to EMH their engines.  I want to punch someone in the face (in tears) and explain to them how hard it is to diet and exercise and eat right for your whole life and STILL watch your weight increase.  I really support anti-bullying for all kinds of kids because I know.  Most of all, I wasn't a fat kid or teen.  I was tall.  But because I was size 14 due to my tallness I was called fat by my OWN MOTHER.  I wasted my 20s thinking I was some huge thing and no one would love me ever because I was fat.  When PCOS really kicked in at 26 I thought it was because I was bad and eating tiny amounts of food was still too much.  And at least once I realized it was my endocrine system I could have a tiny relief from the guilt.  

Which could have been prevented if a doctor looked past the fat in those 26 years of my life and did a simple ultrasound instead of telling me, LOOSE WEIGHT.

MarilynWann
MarilynWann

I so sympathize with your anger and the intensely hurt feelings you describe. Please know that nearly every fat person who exercises in public gets some sort of hateful comment or reaction. (I call it our "Moo Stories.") Which, to my mind, proves that people are not concerned for our health when they make negative judgments based on weight. (Although I also hate it when people assume I'm exercising for a weight-loss goal and give me that creepy thumbs-up, "Keep at it," reaction.) No, I'm exercising because I enjoy it and because it makes me feel good and because I like to take care of myself right now, as I am now.

Juana
Juana

Your columns are always full of substance!They make me question the validity of what our brains are "force fed" on a daily basis.And they touch my heart. 

radfatty
radfatty

Marilyn, Thank you for this posting. As difficult as this topic is to look at, it definitely needs to be recognized as the serious issue it is. As you stated, the solution to ending the bullying of fat kids is not to blame the children but to advocate for them and make certain there are consequences for the bullies. That is why we need to talk to our legislators about including weight and height, or physical appearance, in the anti-bullying laws.

NO child should ever be made to feel worthless or that they have no alternative but to take their own lives because of heartlessness and fat hate.

People that believe that fat kids bring it on themselves because they could control their size need to read the many studies that show that body size is as much inheritable as height or the color of your hair or eyes. Size does not equate health. If you are active and eat well (a healthful diet), you can be healthy at the size you are right now. You do NOT have to lose weight to be healthy. As you stated, Marilyn, Health At Every Size(R) is the answer.

If the commenters have not looked at NAAFA's Child Advocacy Toolkit, take the time to do so and gain another perspective, one from that of a fat kid.

John Dole
John Dole

Please!  It's one thing to say no sane adult wants to see children bullied for any reason. But it's quite another to ignore the dangers obese children face as they become adults.  A commentary such as this needs perspective, and in this case the other side of the coin is that being overweight is a health hazard to yourself.

MarilynWann
MarilynWann

I suggest you read the National Geographic article (linked above) about the Health At Every Size(tm) approach, John. We have had decades of the weight-loss approach and it has proven not to result in lasting weight loss for the vast majority of the millions of people who have tried it. (There's a reason weight-loss ads with before/after photos say, in small print at the bottom, "Results not typical.") We've run the weight-loss experiment. It doesn't make people thinner or healthier in the longterm and yoyo dieting certainly doesn't make people feel better about themselves. I suggest we consider acting like scientists and look at an approach that has — in preliminary testing — proven to improve eating/exercise behaviors, health, and self-esteem. That's the Health At Every Size(tm) approach. Given the data I've seen on both approaches, continuing to insist that fat people lose weight in order to hope for good health sounds more like bullying than help.

John Dole
John Dole

While there is obvious merit to the Health At Every Size approach, you still have your head in the sand if you ignore that most children benefit from exercise and a healthy diet from an early age.  They key to dealing with obesity is preventing it from happening.  Reading your work one could get the idea that you actually believe that people are just being born larger than ever, there is no responsibility for what is happening around us. Simply not true.

Quib
Quib

Did you see the part where body shaming, y'know making people feel bad for being fat, was a Direct cause of the Death of Children? That was the whole point of the article. I don't know what you think you are responding to, but it's pretty clearly spelled out: Messages that fatness is bad have cost lives. That has nothing to do with exercise or health or fitness.

Do you understand that exercise and health food are not helpful to someone who has died? Suggesting them as solutions is not showing a concern for health, it is showing a callous and depraved disrespect for human lives.

Marilyn Wann
Marilyn Wann

I love nutrition and exercise! I want these health-enhancing activities to be enjoyable for people of all sizes and ages! I also believe this means we stop the shame and blame. Yes, I look like other people in my bio family. I imagine you do, too. What would you lose that's so precious to you, if you stopped defining health in terms of weight?

Mari
Mari

I am curious what scientific evidence you base your statement about that supposed fact on? Have you completed your own scientific studies and proven that as a fact? Have you really looked into the source of the information you have used to support that statement? Have you looked into the fact that the majority of studies that report the health risks of being fat and supposed health benefits of losing weight and being a prescribed size are funded, in the majority, by multimillion dollar diet industry? Are you aware that when non-biased independent studies are done (such as the study done by Linda Bacon alongside Judith Stern a well respected diet researcher) their results are quite different? Their study shows that people can improve their health, and well being, without losing weight.

We don't need to focus on the fat, attack fat itself, because that does nothing but further the stigma and bigotry towards fat people. As you said, we need to focus our energy on the the things that help lead to health IN ALL PEOPLE and not the fat itself if we really want to stop the bullying.

bsaunders
bsaunders

I think you're both partially right. The multimedia diet industry and much of the health community do have it wrong by focusing on fat the way that they do. It is also the case that SOME individuals get fatter when they engage in unhealthy behaviors and leaner when they engage in healthier behaviors. 

The bullying is real. Fat-and-fit people are real. But the pattern of poor health behaviors-weight gain is also a real phenomenon. There are many people who could not do what they need to become fit and healthy and stay fat, just as there are many people who would not become lean from healthy behaviors or fitness. I think that not admitting that is part of what keeps us in the battle over the polarized statements, "Fat IS unhealthy." - "No, it's NOT."

I also take issue with the way the First Lady's campaign, in my opinion, cynically uses fat prejudice as the steam for its marketing strategy.

Mari
Mari

Um. This was in reply to "common sense consumer" actually and not you Marilyn :) Not sure how that happened but "doh!" on my part.

common sense consumer
common sense consumer

First of all, I agree: bullying for ANY reason is not OK. weight-based bullying should be taken as seriously as any other bullying issue.

HOWEVER...I'm sorry, but fat people DO need to lose weight in order to improve their health. that's not bullying, that is a fact.  I am not adovcating a commercial diet.  Nor do I think the Frist Lady is.  Educating youth AND adults on portions, encouraging whole foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein), drinking water, moving more are all important building blocks for good health to help maintain a healthy weight. 

I think we should focus our energy on ensuring that all communuties have access to fresh & nutritious food, as well as safe areas & ample opportunities for physical activities.  It is not coincidence that that rates of childhood obesity are much higher in poor areas.

Ljsmc
Ljsmc

Actually, it is not true that fat people need to lose weight to improve their health.  Numerous studies - including the one Ms. Wann referenced above - have shown that a weight-neutral health-positive approach yields better and longer-lasting outcomes than any diet program, drug, or surgery to date.  Read the article again. Ms. Wann (and the Health at Every Size approach) are with you on the need and desirability for promoting access to nutritious whole foods and safe ways and places to exercise.  Where you and Mrs. Obama lose them is the singling out of fat people.  These are things ALL people - not just fat people - need, and ALL people - not just fat ones - can benefit from. Programs that target certain weight groups while ignoring others  do a disservice to all and further the kinds of thinking that leads to discrimination and the types of bullying which drive fat kids to suicide.

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