Weight-based bullying can lead adolescents to potentially harmful coping strategies

Adolescents who experience weight-based bullying in school often cope with these experiences in ways that may be harmful for their emotional and physical well-being, according to a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. 

Despite increasing recognition of weight-based teasing in adolescence, this study is the first to provide an in-depth examination of reactions and coping strategies among adolescents in response to weight-based bullying. The study is published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Yale researchers asked several hundred high school students (grades 9-12) about their experiences of weight-based teasing and bullying at school, how they felt after these experiences, and the strategies they used to cope with their victimization. Findings showed that 40%-50% of adolescents who were victimized because of their weight felt sad and depressed, worse about themselves, bad about their body and angry; some even felt afraid.  

The more that boys and girls reported negative feelings resulting from weight-based bullying, the more they also reported coping with these experiences by avoiding gym class, consuming more food, and binge eating. In addition, the odds of students skipping school or reporting that their grades were harmed because of weight-based teasing increased 5% per teasing incident. These findings remained even after accounting for students’ gender, age, race, grades, and weight status.

According to lead author Rebecca Puhl, the Rudd Center’s director of research, “These findings suggest that many adolescents respond to weight-based bullying in ways that may have adverse outcomes for their health and functioning at school.”

The researchers call for increased support for adolescents who are experiencing weight-based bullying, and to help these students replace unhealthy coping strategies with more adaptive responses that can buffer against the harmful effects of victimization.