By Izzy Kalman, MS, NCSP
Trigger Warning: The subject of weight has become increasingly sensitive in recent years, and even physicians are advised not to address excessive weight of patients. Avoidance of reality is not a helpful practice in scientific psychological theory and practice. It is a fact that obesity is a growing phenomenon that affects both physical health and self-image, and that fat-shaming has been the most common form of body shaming for many decades. It is impossible to help those suffering from these weight-related problems if they cannot be mentioned. If you feel that reading about obesity and body shaming will cause you emotional distress, you should bypass this article.
Do you have an overweight child who’s being bullied? Have you followed the universally offered advice to inform the school, only to find that the problem has continued and even escalated? If so, you are not alone. You may have come to believe the problem is intractable, but the solution may be simpler than you’ve imagined.
The problem of body shaming
Body shaming is certainly one of the most common forms of bullying. The incessant promotion of the ideal of thinness and the simultaneous growing epidemic of obesity have combined to make weight the most common target of body shaming.
Why is bullying, including fat-shaming, continuing to be called an epidemic despite more than two decades of anti-bullying efforts by society? It’s because these efforts are predominantly directed to encouraging kids to stop bullying others. But if your child needs to wait for others to change, they may continue suffering indefinitely. Fortunately, the person best positioned to get your child to stop being bullied is none other than your child.
First, to help your child, it is important to have realistic expectations.
We can’t prevent others from noticing our differences and imperfections.
Don’t you notice when others are different from the norm, or have obvious imperfections? Of course, you do. So, if your child is overweight, stop expecting others not to notice. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not.
It is impossible to prevent any given individual from insulting your child once.
We all get picked on once in a while. Bullying, though, refers to being victimised repeatedly over time by the same individuals. As you have discovered, it can be devastating for a child to be ridiculed by schoolmates day after day. It is precisely this destructive, repetitive victimization that your child needs to–and can–prevent.
As much as we hate being shamed, it has a positive biological purpose.
Shaming is a universal behavior that goes on in every society in the world. It’s nature’s way of getting us to improve. If we don’t know what’s wrong with us, we can’t fix it. Because our eyes face outwards, we are far less likely to notice our own imperfections than those of others.
Furthermore, until the not-too-distant past, there were no mirrors, cameras and sound recorders, so we had only a vague idea of what we looked and sounded like. Thus, we needed others to let us know what’s wrong with us. After all, isn’t that what’s behind the worldwide campaign against bullies — shaming them so that they’ll change? And that’s precisely what kids are doing when they ridicule your child for being fat. Even if they are not consciously intending to, they are engaging in hard-wired socio-biological behavior intended to push your child to become healthier and better-looking.
In fact, if your child is overweight, there is a good chance even you have been encouraging them to slim down. Peer pressure is often more effective than all the lectures from Mom and Dad. The news is replete with stories of people who got into shape in response to body shaming. A prime example is Superman actor Henry Cavill, who was called Fat Cavill in school. So, instead of being mad about it, accept and appreciate it.
Two separate issues
If your child is being body shamed, there are two separate issues. One is how your child feels about being overweight. It could be that your child is upset about it and would like to be trim. The second issue is that your child is being body shamed. These two issues often go together, but they don’t always.
Kids who are bullied about their weight believe they are bullied because they are overweight. But this is not accurate. The real reason is because they get upset when they’re bullied for being overweight. If they wouldn’t get upset, it would be no fun to pick on them, and the kids would leave them alone.
On the other hand, a child can be as thin as a rail, yet if kids call them fat and they respond by getting upset, the kids will continue calling them fat.
There are kids who feel bad about being overweight and wish they were thinner, but they don’t get bullied because they don’t get upset when picked on. Popularity has little to do with our weight. What counts is whether we’re enjoyable to be with. In fact, some incredibly popular people are obese. A great example is the comedian Gabriel Iglesias.
If your child is upset because of obesity, that is a legitimate concern. See if they want your help in finding a solution. And it’s never going to be an overnight process.
But whether or not they want to reduce their weight, their most urgent need is to stop being body shamed. All it takes is seconds.
The most effective way to deal with bullying is by employing the Golden Rule, which instructs us to be nice to people even when they are mean to us, or, in other words, to treat them like friends even when they treat us like enemies. It’s not a recipe for losing, but for winning, and it creates a win/win situation.
The reason it works is that people are biologically programmed for reciprocity. That’s why we feel like being nice to people when they’re nice to us, and mean when they’re mean to us. But if I operate by reciprocity, and am mean to you when you are mean to me, you will be mean to me again. If, instead, I’m nice to you when you’re mean to me, you’ll feel like being nice back. And my absolute favorite way of responding to an insult is with the opposite compliment, as I will demonstrate shortly.
The most effective way to teach someone to handle bullying is through role-playing. Put your child in the role of the bully, and you play the victim. Do two takes. In the first, get upset and treat them like an enemy. Then repeat the scenario, but stay calm and treat them like a friend.
Tell your child, “I’m going to teach you why kids make fun of your weight and how to get them to stop. Call me fat, and don’t let me stop you.” It should go something like the following.
Child: You’re so fat!
Parent: No, I’m not!
Child: Yes, you are! Just look in the mirror!
Parent: I’m not fat! I’m big-boned!
Child: It’s not your bones that are big! It’s all of you!
Parent: Stop it already! I am not fat!
Keep it up till it’s clear that you’re not getting your child to stop, and that they’re having a good time seeing you getting upset. Then continue as follows:
Parent: Am I making you stop calling me fat?
Parent: Isn’t this fun for you?
Parent: Who’s winning?
Child: I am.
Parent: Now let’s do it again. Call me fat, and don’t let me stop you.
Child: You’re so fat!
Parent: You’re so thin! That’s great!
Parent: You’re welcome!
And that’s pretty much where it ends. If the child is persistent in insulting you, do as follows.
Child: You’re so fat!
Parent: You’re so thin! I wish I were like you!
Child: But you’re not. You’re still fat.
Parent: And you’re still skinny.
Child: And you’re still fat.
Parent: That’s right. And you’re still skinny.
The child should quickly run out of steam. Then continue:
Parent: This way, do you want to continue calling me fat?
Parent: And who’s winning?
Child: You are.
Parent: That’s right. You see, they’re not calling you fat because you’re overweight, but because you get upset when they call you fat. So, stay calm and tell them they’re thin, and you will see how quickly they stop insulting you. They’ll even appreciate you for complimenting them.
There are other responses than the opposite compliment that also work nicely, and you can act them out with your child. The following is highly effective. It goes as follows.
Child: You’re so fat!
Parent: You just noticed?
Your child will probably laugh, and have nothing more to say.
Another way is to answer with a joke involving a family member, but it has to be done with confidence and in a joking tone for it to work.
Child: You’re so fat!
Parent: You think I’m fat? You should see my Mom!
For good measure, give your child practice. Have them play the victim while you insult them, and instruct them to respond in the ways you taught them. If they succeed in doing it smoothly with you, they’ll probably be able to do it with other kids.
Izzy Kalman is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and lead author of the Be Strong Resilience Program.
If you feel you are in crisis, you are not alone. Download the free Be Strong App to connect with trained counselors and local support. If you are in an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.