I Take Up Space

Examining fatism and its consequences

No Child Left Behind: Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2011

A theory on why Congress omitted protection of height/weight

Heynes body slams his bully
The body slam heard around the world.
Last March when the video of Australian high schooler Casey Heynes taking only so many punches from bully Richard Gale went viral, it was literally the body slam heard all around the world. I remember seeing the pain on Heynes's face after fighting back and thinking that's the look one has when one realizes that one has had to do something one abhors. Gale's claim that he was bullied first just doesn't ring true. Kids that are smaller don't deliver five unanswered punches to a clearly bigger kid, with friends taunting and cheering you on, in "self-defense." But let's be clear, both Heynes and Gale are kids and neither should be bullied or demonized. The adult response to Gale's action should have been a teaching moment, not condemnation.

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But I understand the anger and the jubilation that at least one bully got a comeuppance. Like Heynes, I was an "easy target." I cried easily as a kid, which, of course, encouraged more abuse. I saw an interview with Heynes on Australian T.V. where he said that when he entered high school, he had eight friends who all "ditched" him. He was alone and being alone and being someone who wouldn't hit back meant he was a target.

Dr. Thomas, age 11
I was an easy target.
I realized at that moment that was the difference for me. The worst incident of my school years was when a student pushed me to the ground during 8th grade PE. I was in shock and crying. Another student, a friend who I had spent hours tutoring, stepped in and saved the day, basically ordering the bully and anyone else around to leave me alone or they would have to answer to her. She was tall and muscular and the threat worked. I was protected. In high school, I had friends and we were harassed together as a group, which meant we could walk away as a group and console each other. Heynes didn't have that protection.

Bullying is a widespread problem and the consequences ripple through our social relations in ways that aren't always recognized. Bullied kids sometimes turn violent themselves. Many of the school shootings have been perpetrated by kids who were bullied for most of their lives. Bullied kids sometimes become suicidal and many of them succeed and are no longer with us. This robs us of their potential and creates communities where loss fills lives instead of the joy of watching someone come of age. Bullied kids sometimes grow up to become embittered and violent. I have no doubt that many of the people serving time in jail have a bully or two in their backgrounds. In short, bullying costs us a lot, and in ways, not fully accounted.

In March the U.S. Senate introduced S. 506 and in April, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced H.R. 1648, both titled "Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2011" (SSIA). These two bills are practically identical. Both of these bills have been introduced before. Both of these bills are still in committee. Both of these bills call for schools that accept federal funding to track, create policy and show improvements in bullying that is "conduct based upon" a list of protected categories. Both of these bills should be applauded for including sexual orientation as one of these protected categories since there is no national law that offers that protection of civil rights.

It was the well-publicized rash of suicides among gay and lesbian teenagers in the past few years that raised awareness for this bill and both increased support and resistance to the bill. There is no doubt that school life for homosexuals can be unbearable. There is a systematic culture in most high schools that encourages and essentially condones this kind of bullying. School policies that do not allow same sex couples at proms and school officials who use inflammatory language about homosexuality make it okay to bully gays and lesbians. If SSIA were passed, it would shed light on these systemic elements that surely could lead to improvements.

If you read the social science and public health literature on school bullying, you will recognize that the writers of these two bills have clearly done their research. Much of the language in these bills are a good summary of what is known about the mechanisms, victims and costs of bullying. So, if these were well researched, then why do these bills have a glaring and unacceptable omission. While much of the research shows that fatter kids are overwhelmingly over-represented as victims of bullying, height and weight are not a protected category. The $64,000 question is why?

No one deserves to be bullied
Bullying is not a good motivator
I have a theory. It's only a theory and it's one that would be hard to prove but still makes sense of the facts. The federal government and private corporations are investing millions of dollars into "fighting childhood obesity." This means that schools are being encouraged to target fat kids and their parents with everything from educational materials to "BMI grades." The same kinds of systemic culture that encourages bullying of gays and lesbians exists in this fight. Fat kids are targeted by adults as having something "wrong" with them and therefore, they are safe targets for bullies as well. If SSIA made height and weight a protected category, then some of the efforts being made elsewhere in the federal government would come under scrutiny, and, I believe, wouldn't fare that well in that light of day. To support both an anti-obesity effort and an anti-bullying of fat kids effort at the same time would be difficult to pull off. Maybe Congress is aware of this conflict and the omission is intentional. Or maybe, they aren't aware of their own belief that somehow being harassed by classmates will lead to weight loss. Perhaps, they believe that it isn't bullying if the fat kid needs to hear it in order to change their behavior.

Cruise any website that discusses weight and you will find a number of people who believe that telling a fat person they are less than human will encourage them to lose weight. People have said similar things in the comments for this blog. Stigma of fatness is not seen as a precursor to hate or bullying, but rather a duty on the part of authorities in order to correct what is obviously bad behavior. It is a cultural norm to believe that fat people are 100% responsible for their body shape and that they need to be motivated to change. Harassment is often seen as a motivation.

So given that the adults feel this way, is it any wonder that according to a study published in Pediatrics, June 2010, a fat kid is 63% more likely than the average to be bullied? The same mechanisms that created an atmosphere of acceptance for harassment of gay and lesbian teenagers, exists for fat kids. The same kinds of stigma exist. The same debate about choice versus biology exists. And the same kinds of damage to kids are being done.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) held a press conference today in Washington, D.C. asking for legislators to help protect these kids by adding height and weight to the list of protected categories. This addition would give incentives to schools to pay attention to the bullying of fat kids (and short kids) and to create policies and test the effectiveness of those policies. It is an important step to end bullying. It will be interesting to see if our legislators listen and are willing to see if their programs are actually helping.

Perhaps my theory is wrong and this oversight is just a matter of not being educated or well-researched. I suspect, however, that if Congress adds this category to SSIA, we will see that schools with programs that target childhood obesity will also have a higher rate of bullying of fat kids. If that is true, then, it will be good to know and it will help both anti-bullying efforts and health-promotion efforts to improve. Most importantly, it may make life better for kids of all sizes.

Pattie Thomas, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and author of Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, a sociological memoir. more...

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