When children are bullied in school, the effects carry into adulthood. According to a recent UNICEF report, 150 million teenagers around the world say they experienced some form of bullying in the past month or were involved in physical altercations in the past year. In the US, the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 20% of participants reported being bullied in the past year, and a 2014 meta-analysis found that up to 35% of school children experienced bullying in some form.
Weight plays a major role, as children with larger bodies tend to be bullied more than their thinner peers. Most of the prior research on weight and bullying, however, focuses on how others view a person’s body. There is a lack of research assessing both self-perceived body image and actual appearance, and how they relate to bullying.
Yi-Ching Lin and colleagues aimed to fill that gap by analyzing data from the 2009-2010 Health Behavior of School-Aged Children study. They focused on answers from 8,303 US students in grades seven through ten to questions about perceptions of their weight status, frustration with appearance, and experiences of being bullied.
The survey measured self-perceived weight status through questions like “what are your thoughts on your body?”, and participants chose from “much too fat,” “about the right size,” and “much too thin.” Participants were also asked to rate how strongly they agreed with items related to frustrations with their looks, and to indicate how often they were bullied by peers in the past few months.
Participants’ frustrations with their body images was also found to play a key role in the experience of bullying.
Self-perceived weight was more related to bullying than actual weight, particularly among female students. Participants’ frustrations with their body images was also found to play a key role in the experience of bullying. The researchers speculate that lower self-esteem associated with poor self-perception may make someone more likely to withdraw socially, potentially increasing their chances of being targeted by bullies. Further, self-perception of weight had stronger association with health outcomes than did actual weight. Frustrations with body image also had a greater impact on health than actual body weight.
The researchers suggest that efforts to prevent bullying should change in approach. Instead of solely discussing weight loss or maintenance, anti-bullying programs should also emphasize self-esteem and self-confidence about one’s body.