05/13/2013 05:38 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Weight Bias: The Bullseye of Bullying

Open any magazine or periodical and you will surely find a story highlighting some celebrity's recent weight gain; we have become preoccupied with weight. Whether it is Kim Kardashian getting slammed in the media for gaining weight or Jessica Simpson's weight fluctuations due to pregnancy, the stories seem to find their way to the front page, especially those regarding women. Yes, even superstars are not immune to the scrutiny of weight bias. If a woman gains weight, it is considered their own fault. Unfortunately, in a 21st century that proclaims tolerance and acceptance of diversity, it seems the social stigma associated with obesity makes it the last accepted form of discrimination.

Sadly, this weight bias doesn't stop at the school door. Boys and girls see the outright assault on weight in the media and culture in general and view weight bias as acceptable and "normal."

Even though most school systems include some type of bullying awareness program in their curriculum, more times than not, overweight children are left out of these programs. Weight bias remains the one area of bullying that receives little or no attention and is not even listed as a factor in many definitions of bullying.

That's right, weight bias is one area of bullying that is not only condoned but also seemingly tolerated, despite the fact that some research suggests 85 per cent of the time, bullying is based on size and weight.

The driving factor behind weigh bias is that most assume it is the children's fault they are overweight. However, research is clear that environmental and cultural influences are a major factor in the obesity epidemic.

For instance, the FDA maintains a list of more than 3,000 substances that are acceptable to use in processed foods. That's right, 3,000! They also don't take into account weight gain as children go through puberty, socio-economic level, body types, and many of factors that influence weight gain.

However, regardless of the reason for obesity, it is unacceptable to target these children because of their weight or shape.

Weight bias bullying may include name-calling, derogatory remarks, exclusion from social activities, verbal or physical threats or actual assault. Because there is such an acceptance of weight bias, many students may never tell a parent or teacher they are being bullied. Signs to look for in your children may include poor body image, fad dieting, or avoidance of physical activity, ultimately which all lead toward low self-esteem.

Unfortunately, we're not getting much help from some of the leading "professionals" on the topic. Daniel Callahan, a bioethicist, recently suggested that the best way to curb the obesity epidemic is by "fat shaming." He thinks overweight people should be publicly humiliated and shamed.

This is what we're up against. It's time we as parents step up and help eradicate weight bias, especially amongst our children.

Here are a few strategies suggested by Yale Rudd Center to raise awareness of weight-bias and give these children the dignity and support they need:

Address the issue of weight‐based bullying in anti‐bullying trainings for school personnel.

Treat weight bias as a legitimate form of bias. It is after all the leading type of bullying.

Be more aware of the signs of weight bias, and intervene when students are teased about their weight.

Make sure your school or district polices include weight bias in their bullying information.

Have a conversation with your child if you notice any of the symptoms listed above. If weight bias is allowed to continue and "fat shaming" becomes an acceptable social behaviour, then bullying will only continue to rise in our schools and society at large.

Where does this tolerance of bullying end? Is "fat shaming" just the beginning? Will it lead to outright physical abuse of these children because of their weight or shape? It's tough enough to be a child in today's culture without the added pressure to fit someone's unrealistic idea of "normal." We are not "one size fits all." And if our goal as a society is to celebrate diversity, then we should celebrate ALL diversity, small and large.

Dr. Brad Johnson is an international speaker in wellness. He is author of Scared Skinny No More:Exposing the Myths of Weight Bias and Weight Loss.

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