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Weight Stigma in Schools: Q&A with Dr. Rebecca M. Puhl

What educators and parents can do to lessen the burden of weight stigma.

Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D has been studying weight bias for over a decade and has published extensively on this topic. She is an editor of the book Weight Bias: Nature, Extent, and Remedies (Guilford Press, 2005), and served as guest editor for a supplement issue in the journal Obesity, "Weight Bias: New Science on a Significant Social Problem.” Dr. Puhl is deputy director as well as a senior research scientist at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.

Q: Where are school educators and psychologists now in their awareness of the effects of weight stigma and fat shaming on students?

A: Recent research suggests that many educators are becoming increasingly aware that weight-based bullying and teasing is a problem in the school setting. The National Education Association issued a report in 2011, in which thousands of educators across the country were surveyed and asked what type of bullying they perceived to be most problematic. Weight-based bullying came out on top.

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Having said that, there is very little training or education about the harmful effects of weight bias on children, which is badly needed.

Q: What measures have you seen being taken at schools (elementary through college) to address the issue of weight stigma?

A: So far, there has been little systematic effort taken in the school environment to address this problem. There are some school-based body image and/or obesity interventions that include limited content on stigma, but overall, this is not being addressed. And although most schools have anti-bullying policies in place, many don't mention body weight as a characteristic that is vulnerable to bullying.

Q: What are the most effective methods you have seen in schools to combat weight stigma and fat shaming?

A: Although research is still in its infancy regarding what approaches are most effective to reduce weight bias among students, some work suggests that educating students about the complex (and often uncontrollable) causes of obesity or body weight can help reduce negative stereotypes that are often ascribed to youth who are overweight or obese. So, it's important to make sure that students (and educators) have an accurate understanding that the causes of body weight are complex, and often beyond individual control or factors like willpower and discipline.

It's also important to treat weight-based bullying as serious as other forms of bullying at school.

Q: Are there any studies of school age kids' response to fat stigma?

A: Yes. Those who are teased and bullied about their weight at school often experience a range of negative psychological and physical health consequences, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors. They are also more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors and avoid physical activity, such as gym class. Students often blame themselves for the bullying, experience more social isolation, are excluded from peer activities, and are less likely to be nominated as friends by their peers.

As for what other students do who witness weight-based bullying, our research with high school students found that although students reported feeling comfortable to step in and help a peer who was being teased about their weight, many (most) remain passive bystanders following these incidents.

Q: As obesity levels go down in America do you think weight stigma will as well?

A: Well, one can always hope, but I think it will take more than changing obesity rates to reduce this form of bias. The unfortunate reality is that this form of stigma remains very socially acceptable and pervasive in our society. It is rarely challenged and often ignored. To reduce weight bias, we need to think broadly of what factors in our society and environment need to shift

Q: What would your top five suggestions be to school administrators and teachers to reduce weight stigma and help those who have been its victims?

A: Here's what I would suggest:

-- Educators need to treat the importance of weight bias as seriously as other forms of bias in the school setting (e.g., race, religion, sexual orientation).

-- Schools need to ensure that school-based anti-bullying policies include protections for students of diverse body sizes

-- In any kind of school health curriculum or obesity prevention program, the emphasis should be on health, not on being thin or achieving a certain body size. The goal for all children is improved health through physical activity and healthy eating, regardless of their body weight

-- It's important for educators to question their own assumptions and use of language about weight - be aware of disparaging comments about body weight, and challenge personal attitudes and assumptions about body weight.

-- Educate students and teachers about the complex and multiple causes of body weight. Show that genetic, biological, environmental, and behavioral factors all contribute to a person's weight.

-- Increase awareness of how the media perpetuates weight bias, for example through negative and stereotypical portrayals of obese people, and unrealistic and unhealthy ideals of thinness).

-- Encourage and support students of all weights to participate in sports, student council, and other school-based activities.

Q: Are parents and teachers sometimes the sources of weight-based teasing and bullying?

A: Yes, it's not just peers. A study of ours found that overweight and obese students reported being victimized about their weight from parents (37%) and teachers (27%). So this means that efforts to reduce bias need to increase awareness of this problem among adults, not just youth.

Q: What are you suggestions on how to fight the obesity epidemic in a way that does not trigger eating disorders and weight stigma?

A: The message really needs to be about health, rather than body size. If we communicate to children and families that their health behaviors are what's most important, support and empower them in their efforts to engage in healthy behaviors, and remove the focus and emphasis on body weight or physical appearance. This can go a long way to help prevent eating disorders and weight bias.

Q: How can peers and adults best help the student facing weight stigma?

A: Our research has found that when students are bullied about their weight, they want their friends to provide social support in addition to support from teachers and parents. Students most desire social support, such as being included in activities with peers, having someone to listen to them and spend time with them, and provide encouragement. But they prefer bully-focused support strategies from teachers (e.g., punishment of the bully, strengthening classroom rules about bullying, separating the bully from the student).

This post is part of the online event Weight Stigma Awareness Week. For more posts in this online event, click here.

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance journalist who has written numerous stories on health, eating disorders, and body image.

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