Adolescents report weight as primary reason for bullying at school

Adolescents report that being overweight is a primary reason that students are teased at school, according to a study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Published online in the Journal of School Health, the study is the first to examine adolescents’ observations of weight-based teasing at school and suggests that students view weight-based teasing to be even more common than teasing because of sexual orientation.

Researchers surveyed over 1500 high school students about their perceptions of teasing and bullying at school. Students were asked their views on how common weight-based bullying is compared to other forms of teasing at school, what types of weight-based teasing are most common, and how they typically react to observed teasing incidents.

Approximately 41 percent of students identified being overweight as the primary reason that students are bullied, followed by sexual orientation, intelligence and ability at school, race and ethnicity, physical disability, religion, and low socio-economic status. 

At least 84 percent of the students surveyed observed overweight students being called names, getting teased in a mean way, and teased during physical activity, such as gym class. Two thirds of the students observed their overweight and obese peers as being ignored, avoided, excluded from social activities, having negative rumors spread about them, and being teased in the cafeteria. The majority of students also observed verbal threats and physical harassment toward overweight and obese peers.

While the majority of students reported willingness to help an overweight peer who has been teased, approximately half of the students surveyed remained passive bystanders in these situations, leaving overweight students to cope with these experiences on their own.

The authors assert that these findings are cause for concern, and underscore the need for effective school-based interventions to protect overweight students.

“While many schools have anti-bullying policies in place, there is clearly a need for more awareness and education about weight-based teasing in the school setting, and increased vigilance from educators and school staff to protect these students,” said lead author Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Yale Rudd Center.