Findings from Leah M. Lessard and Samantha E. Lawrence published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences show that as many as four-in-five high school students have observed weight-based mistreatment at school. Weight is the most commonly cited reason for bullying, affecting as many as 50 percent of youths.
These widespread, pervasive judgments can be extremely harmful. Weight-related teasing, bullying, and stigma cause mental health problems, such as depression, social anxiety, eating disorders, and psychosocial issues. Terrifyingly, one-in-five obese youths will battle suicidal ideation.
Research shows that stigma against those of higher body weights (“weight stigma”) is the root cause of the distress, more so than body mass index (BMI) and other weight metrics. In instances where BMI and mental health problems are correlated, weight stigma mediates the relationship.
Is there a way to counteract weight stigma, particularly in young people? Lessard and Lawrence believe it is possible with a multipronged approach.
“First, policies and legislation protecting youth from weight-based bullying would reduce stigma experiences in the school setting. Second, increased funding for schools to address weight stigma would bolster awareness and resources to support youth with diverse body sizes. Third, advocacy for school wellness programs to emphasize health—rather than weight—would promote youth mental and physical well-being,” Drs. Lessard and Lawrence outline.
These policies are backed by overwhelming support from parents and educators. Yet, only 37 percent of educators country-wide report that their schools have a weight-based component to their anti-bullying policy.
Moreover, the vast majority of educators report feeling unprepared to intervene against weight-based bullying, citing a need for additional training.
What might that training look like? Lessard and Lawrence suggest “examination of experiences of students with larger bodies…and strategies to enhance inclusivity of nutrition and physical education and engage with students targeted by weight stigma” as a promising starting point.
To invest in better training, funding must be allocated.
Two-thirds of parents believe additional funding is required for schools to adequately address weight-based bullying. Increased funding would see more prepared teachers, counselors, and school staff and improved curricula with a focus on mitigating weight-based mistreatment. With better tools, teachers could appropriately recognize and step in, which in turn models healthy mediation techniques to students.
The final step proposed by Lessard and Lawrence is for school programming to shift the focus to healthy eating and physical activity, rather than weight loss. Wellness programs should abolish BMI and weight monitoring, aim to de-stigmatize high weight, and promote healthy choices and body satisfaction among students of different body types.
US policymakers have an opportunity to invest in the campaign against stigmatization of overweight youth by codifying weight-based anti-bullying legislation; funding teacher training that prepares staff to proactively engage with students and intervene against weight-based teasing; and supporting a shift in school wellness policies to emphasize wellness instead of weight.
These changes have enormous potential to attenuate weight-based discrimination and nurture a healthy adolescence.