What Is the Connection Between Obesity and Bullying

Discover why obese kids are bullied and why they bully others

tape measure tighten around a girl's stomach

The connection between obesity and bullying is complex. For years, people assumed that kids are bullied because they are overweight or obese. They never considered that heavier kids also might be perpetrators. But researchers have found that while obese children are clearly targeted by bullies, they also may be bullying others. They use their size to their advantage and prey on those they consider smaller, weaker or more powerless.

Meanwhile, some obese children are caught in the bully-victim cycle. They are bullied, so they also bully others. Also, some researchers speculate that bullying can contribute to childhood obesity. As kids are bullied, they sometimes turn to food as a source of comfort and to temporarily relieve their pain

Why Are Obese Kids Targeted?

While there are a lot of different reasons why bullies target other kids, for obese children, they are almost always bullied because of their size. In fact, studies have shown that obese children are more likely to be targeted by bullies than their normal-weight peers.

Additionally, obese children are bullied more often than normal-weight children even when they have the traits that discourage bullying such having good social skills and doing well academically. For overweight children, those skills seem to provide very little buffering for bullying. In fact, research has shown that weight is often at the top of the list when bullies are choosing a target.

Furthermore, some researchers speculate that obese children often struggle with low self-esteem and have fewer friends than their normal-weight peers. As a result, they are more likely to be targeted. Meanwhile, one study found that kids who considered themselves overweight were not only bullied but also reported feeling lonely, sad, fearful and even wimpy.

Lastly, bullying because of weight may be related to how adults and the media portray weight and obesity. For instance, kids are bombarded with negative comments about weight from adults, commercials and television programs. These messages often revolve around controlling weight. They also may discriminate against different body types. These messages often inadvertently communicate that it is acceptable to make fun of someone's weight. 

Why Do Obese Kids Bully?

Most researchers suspect that obese children bully others because they are projecting the way they are treated onto other children. They feel bad or angry about the bullying they experience, so they take it out on others around them. Meanwhile, other researchers speculate that obese children use their size to their advantage. They bully other kids because they are bigger and can wield more power over their victims.

Another reason obese kids may choose to bully is because of poor impulse control. For instance, if they have trouble controlling their impulse to eat, they may also struggle to control their impulse to lash out at others.

Does Bullying Lead to Obesity?

Some doctors are questioning whether bullying happens because a child is already obese or if bullying can lead to obesity.

Most would say that it depends. In some cases, kids are obese first and then picked on.

Meanwhile, in other situations kids may become obese as a result of being bullied. In these situations, kids turn to food when they are being bullied as a way to medicate or comfort themselves. And if the bullying is ongoing with little or no intervention, a massive weight gain can take place.

But regardless of what came first, the bullying or the obesity, it is clear that obese children are caught in a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior. Not only are they inactive and sad but they also may use eating as gratification.

The key to stopping the cycle is to help them identify their strengths and then get them involved and active in extracurricular activities. If you focus only on their weight, they are not going to build confidence. You have to first concentrate on building their self-esteem and motivating them to get active. Once you do that, the weight will become less of an issue.