Social bias comes in many different forms, but its impacts are predictable.
Juvenile weight bias refers to negative attitudes toward the overweight child, who is often the subject of ridicule, aggression and isolation. It is well known that children can be cruel, something that many of us have experienced at some point. But overweight children experience this type of bullying every day, from their peers, their teachers and even their own parents.
Research has shown that one third of overweight girls and a quarter of overweight boys have been subject to bullying either through physical aggression, verbal teasing, or social seclusion. Peer bullying can start as early as preschool and continue through the middle and high school years.The heavier the child, the more frequent and intense the bullying.
Weight bias also is shown in teacher’s attitudes towards overweight children. Studies show that teachers feel obese youths are overly emotional, lazy and less likely to succeed. These assumptions change the intellectual and social expectations that a teacher has for an obese child.
The most surprising trend is the way parents treat obese children and the messages they send about obesity in adults. Adults’ negative attitudes send a strong message to children that it is okay to ridicule and even victimize overweight individuals. For overweight and obese youngsters, their parents’ attitudes contribute to poor self-image and low self-esteem, with strong implications for children’s personal aspirations, social interactions and school performance.
Obese children who are bullied, teased or harassed are more likely to experience depression and have a higher incidence of suicidal thoughts. These children also are less likely to voluntarily engage in the very exercise, nutrition and fitness programs that could help restore their good health.
As a trainer, I see the negative impact that weight bias has on children. Parents, educators, trainers and principals need to step up the effort to eliminate weight bias in schools, homes and gyms and help stop the rise in youth overweight and obesity.
Kevin DiDonato is a professional health educator and a certified personal trainer. His home-based business, Human Performance Lab in Ellsworth, provides private and semiprivate fitness training, nutrition counseling, boot camp training, and private or group Pilates classes.