As a kid who started struggling with his weight around age seven, Nancy Leslie's* youngest son, Cameron, got picked on by classmates all the time. "He even quit sailing lessons because he got teased about his weight," says the North Bay, Ont., mother of three. And when Cameron was bullied about his weight at school, teachers and school authorities wouldn't step in. "Their attitude was, well, he's a fat kid, he's going to get picked on. Kids are cruel," says Leslie.
A new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics is aimed at raising awareness about the kind of stigma kids like Cameron face every day. According to lead author Stephen Pont, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and the founding director of the AAP section on obesity, the guilt, and shame kids feel when they're singled out due to their size is harmful in multiple ways.
The emotional and psychological fall-out is even worse: Pont and his co-authors cite research showing that weight-based teasing and bullying is linked with an increased risk of problems ranging from anxiety to substance abuse. It's also associated with a two-fold jump in the odds of thinking about or attempting suicide.
And it's not just other children who are guilty of shaming kids who struggle with their weight, intentionally or otherwise. "Unfortunately, healthcare providers are some of the worst exhibitors of weight stigma," notes Pont. According to the AAP paper, health professionals "often view patients with obesity as being lazy, lacking self-control, and being less intelligent."
Even teachers and parents contribute to the shaming. For example, according to data from one large-scale US study of preschoolers and kindergarteners, teachers rate the academic performance of students with obesity worse than their test performance suggests. Another study found that 37 percent of adolescents attending weight-loss camp had been teased or bullied about their weight by a parent, while a survey of women with obesity found that 53 percent had experienced weight stigma from their mothers, and 44 percent had from their fathers.