The Impacts of Bullying on Body Image
October is World Bullying Prevention Month. In recognition of this, we want to address the impact of bullying on body image due to weight stigma/weight bias and how these factors relate to eating disorders.
It has been reported that school-age students are most commonly bullied about physical appearance, race or ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. One type of “physical appearance” bullying is weight-based bullying. When someone is bullied about their weight, it can have a major effect on their body image and overall self-esteem. In this blog, we will describe what bullying is, the different types of bullying, and how it can relate to eating disorders.
What is bullying?
Bullying is aggressive or otherwise hurtful behavior that often occurs in settings like elementary, middle, and high school, in the workplace, or at the gym. It is unwanted behavior that might be repeated over an extended period of time.
Those who bully often use either physical strength, access to personal information, or their own popularity to control another person. Actions might include making threats, exerting physical violence, spreading rumors, verbally putting someone down, or intentionally excluding a person from an event or gathering.
Types of bullying
There are three main types of bullying:
- Verbal bullying
- Inappropriate or unwanted comments
- Physical bullying
- Hitting or kicking
- Tripping or pushing
- Taking or breaking another person’s belongings
- Making rude gestures
- Social bullying
- Hurting someone’s reputation
- Hurting someone’s relationships
- Spreading rumors
- Leaving someone out of an event or gathering
- Telling others to not be friends with or talk to someone
- Embarrassing someone on purpose
A person can be subject to one, two, or all three types of bullying. Bullying can happen at any point in a person’s life and these bullying events may occur in-person or online.
Linking Bullying and Body Image with Eating Disorders
Bullying can happen at any age; however, it commonly occurs in elementary through high school. Those who are in larger bodies or those in smaller bodies tend to get bullied more often because of their appearance. Those who are bullied based on weight or appearance have a higher chance of struggling with low self-esteem or negative body image.
Bullying can negatively affect body image because individuals may start to believe what a bully says. Some people may develop an eating disorder after being bullied out of a desire to change their body type to fit in with their peers, or because they think something is “wrong with them.” It’s also possible that individuals who have been bullied may turn to food as a way to cope, either by binge eating or restricting, or to have a form of control in their life.
Bullying itself may not directly cause an eating disorder, but it might contribute by adding to the eating disorder voice, personal body dissatisfaction, or thoughts that something is “wrong with their body.” Individuals who are bullied might also face depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and thoughts of suicide, along with feelings of shame, guilt, fear, or sadness, which can also exacerbate or co-occur with eating disorders.
Change the body image narrative
Clearly, bullies need to take personal responsibility for their actions. But also, the media and we as a society should work to encourage body acceptance at any size and address the stigmas about weight that are unfortunately common. Weight bias is the negative ideology associated with body size, while weight stigma is the result of weight bias. Stigma involves seeing someone in a negative light because of their weight, which could lead to treating someone in a hurtful way. Far too often, bullying starts during adolescence because someone doesn’t fit the ideal beauty standard. The more we accept that there isn’t a beauty standard and that beauty comes in all forms, the less weight stigma and bias will exist.
To combat bullying, promote healthy body image and body acceptance as much as possible. A good place to start is to incorporate these practices into your life:
- Set a good example
- Refrain from criticizing your own body or others’ bodies
- Try your best not to comment on someone else’s body, period
- Focus on what our bodies can do, rather than how they look
- Educate others on body diversity
- Support others who have been bullied
- Be there for the people in your life who have been bullied
- Help others focus on things they can control and assist them in walking away from negative situations
- Encourage others to do things they love and build self-esteem through activities
- Understand unrealistic media standards
- Be aware of the effect of photo editing and make-up on media images
- Don’t support diet culture narratives in the media
To help prevent bullying, explain to kids what bullying is, why it is unacceptable, how to stand up for themselves, and how to get help with bullying. Listen to kids when they are discussing school, and keep lines of communication open with school staff and other parents. By encouraging activities they love, they may gain confidence, meet new friends, and give them something else to focus on.
Remember that kids often learn actions from their parents. Treat others, and yourself, with kindness and respect. Promote body acceptance and self-love tactics and teach them that all bodies are good bodies.
If you are being bullied, please remember that it is not your fault. Confide in someone you trust and be honest about your feelings. Sometimes walking away from the situation is the best option.