Issues surrounding race, gender identity, and sexual orientation have been dominating the anti-bullying conversation recently, but a new study released this past week reveals a much more prevalent reason behind childhood bullying. According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford, weight was listed as the most common reason children are bullied.
According to Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center and the lead author of the cross-national study of 2,866 adults in the United States, Canada, Iceland and Australia, close to half of respondents listed ‘being fat’ as the most common reason children are picked on. Fewer than 21 percent listed race, ethnicity or nationality as the most common reason, while fewer than 15 percent listed sexual orientation, 12 percent listed physical disability and fewer than 6 percent listed religion or academic ability.
While the study heightens society’s misplaced focus on superficial and unrealistic beauty standards, it also illuminates a deeper issue – the oft-cited role of ‘choice’ in crafting anti-bullying legislation and public policy. This argument posits that since nobody chooses their race, gender or sexual identity, they shouldn’t be mocked for these traits. This focus on the reasons behind bullying seems to state that it is somehow more unfair to treat people differently due to aspects of themselves they lack the ability to change vs. those things some believe they can change, but chose not to.
No one is saying we shouldn’t discourage bullying based on race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. – of course we shouldn’t. But while these and other physical traits are broadly recognized as characteristics that cannot be modified, weight is seen by many as something that can be changed to fit society’s standards. Whether or not this is true is not an easy-to-determine situation. Moreover, just because something can be changed does not mean it should be open season to make fun of someone who weighs more than the doctored photos we see in magazines.
The fault in this way of thinking is that it places the onus for change on the person being bullied rather than on the tormentor. It should never be up to the victim to end bullying – children should not have to change anything about themselves in order to exist peacefully and safely in their school.
What HEAR strives to teach is that students should have self-esteem regardless of aspects of themselves that might lead to their own insecurity, but that all students should have respect for their classmates and recognize that treating others the way one wants to be treated is the most effective way to spread kindness and respect.
As this study states, while it may be “common” to pick on someone for “being fat,” common behaviors and acceptable behaviors are often two entirely different things. It is our goal at HEAR to make respectful behavior common in schools – regardless of the type of differences being used to bully another person. Just because most anti-bullying policies do not spell out specific protection for students who are bullied due to their weight, kindness dictates that no difference – chosen or otherwise – justifies bullying. HEAR recognizes that we all have the power to make a difference. Think of what you can do to spread respect, kindness, and more in your everyday life.