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Size Matters

by Dana Schuster, MS

The following post was published on Feb. 25 in the “Not In Our Town” Blog, a movement whose goal is “to stop hate, address bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities for all.” Not in Our Town and Not in Our School are both projects of The Working Group, an Oakland-based nonprofit founded in 1988.

I have had a general awareness of the school efforts of this group, and then last fall I attended a San Mateo County Office of Education “RESPECT 24/7” event, where a couple of the “Not in Our School” programs were highlighted. When I shared my concerns in that session, that bullying based on body size and shape is rarely considered in anti-bullying discussions, one of the presenters asked if I would be willing to write a blog post on this subject.

In light of both my HAES activism and the fact that helping create a physically and emotionally safe campus is an integral part of School Wellness, it was an honor to be asked to write this blog post. While I know that the content will be basic and familiar to many of you, your blog committee hopes you will still enjoy reading what I shared with this anti-bullying community.

We are all painfully aware that we live in a culture rife with judgment and bias, and a disturbing tendency to pit one group or viewpoint against another. While voices have recently been increasing in volume that say we must acknowledge and combat stigma and bullying, particularly among our youth, consider, if you will, the following scenarios.

  • You walk onto your local high school campus and observe a gym class on the track. A group of lean-looking boys are sprinting in the front, and a fat girl walks at the back, away from the others.
  • It’s lunchtime at your local elementary school and as you walk by you see a fat boy sitting alone on a bench eating a piece of pizza.
  • You are out shopping at the mall and pass two teens coming out of the ice cream shop eating sundaes, one of whom is thinly built, the other has a round body.

Be honest…what were your first thoughts? Perhaps words like “unmotivated” or “poor eating habits” or “no wonder s/he is fat” jumped into your mind. Did you automatically think the boys at the front of the pack on the track were healthy? Did you judge that slice of pizza as “bad” food? Was your reaction to the thin ice cream eater different than your thought about the larger consumer? If so, you are certainly not alone.

In a world dedicated to fighting a “war on obesity” people are often quick to make behavioral and/or health assumptions based solely on observed body size. All of the aforementioned thoughts, however, are evidence of discriminatory “sizeist” thinking, which directly contributes to the prevalence of size-based bullying and stigmatization.

By the way, that group of boys sprinting on the track just might contain a couple exercise bulimics. And that pizza could be a school provided whole wheat and nutrient laden option that may well be the only hot meal the boy receives that day. Interestingly, ice cream is no more/less a healthy choice for the thinly built person than the round bodied one.

Size-based bullying is actually one of the most prevalent forms of abuse in our schools, with staff indicating weight related bullying to be more frequently observed than bullying based on sexual orientation, disability, race, sexism, race, or religion. Additionally, research out of Yale has indicated that the likelihood of being bullied is 63% higher for an “obese” child compared to a “healthy weight” peer. Just a few years ago, September was declared national “Childhood Obesity Awareness” month, with the focus on programs and resources to help reduce the number of fat children and youth in our communities. Think for a moment; what might the reaction be to a “LGBT Awareness” month that was focused on identifying strategies to change gay or transgendered children and teens into heterosexual young people?

Childhood "obesity"

We mistakenly believe body size/shape to be under our individual control, yet studies suggest that up to 80% of our body weight may be determined by our genetics. Add to that the variance in individual living conditions, social status, food and healthcare access, and a myriad of other economic and environmental issues that impact our bodies, and our level of “control” seems quite elusive. Yet, the belief in, and promotion of, weight-loss focused interventions continue despite the decades of evidence that confirms “the proven ineffectiveness of weight loss attempts.

Size bullying and stigmatization remains largely unrecognized in anti-bullying programs because it doesn’t even occur to most people to consider it a problem. The mantra most of us were raised with that you can “never be too rich or too thin” coupled with the moral belief of “gluttony” — equated with fatness — is a “sin”, leaves little room for size diversity and acceptance. It is way past time to change this.

Body shape, size and weight need to be listed alongside race, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc., as characteristics of diversity to be protected. Our young people deserve to be taught — through both adult example and educational instruction — to value their own and others’ unique bodies, whether they be fat/thin, tall/short or any other combination of size and shape. We all need to check in with our preconceived biases and assumptions, and work to banish them from our perspectives.

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