The terrors of middle school body harassment, and how to help your child navigate body shaming

“Are you pregnant?” asks the 11-year old boy, pointing at her stomach and immediately breaking into hilarious giggles, encouraging everyone around him to look and laugh as well.

And the girl, stunned, looks down at her belly and wonders, perhaps for the first time “am I fat?” And she starts to think, perhaps for the first time, about changing her body.

People say terrible things, but it is perhaps never more common than in middle school. The body harassment that runs rampant in middle school is ruthless and without boundaries. People of all sizes and shapes are harassed at this most vulnerable and awkward time of body development. Regardless of their body size and shape, our kids can be targeted for any number of perceived flaws, including:

  • Fat
  • Skinny
  • Short
  • Tall
  • Acne
  • Breasts
  • Butt
  • Genitals
  • Body hair
  • Facial hair
  • Skin color
  • Nose
  • Ears
  • Feet

The list of body-based taunts is seemingly endless, and middle schoolers seem inherently gifted when it comes to creating them.

It’s no surprise that eating disorders frequently begin during middle school, though the symptoms may not be diagnosed until years later. Eating disorders are linked with body-based bullying and our society’s obsession with appearance, particularly the avoidance of fat (fatphobia). 

Where eating disorders come from

The majority of eating disorders begin between the ages of 10-20. Eating disorders typically thrive in people who have a predisposition for anxiety and depression and are even more common among people who experience adverse childhood events and trauma.

When a person has conditions such as depression, anxiety, and trauma, they tend to seek maladaptive coping behaviors to help them tolerate intolerable feelings. Maladaptive coping mechanisms include substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, and a broad variety of addictive behaviors.

A person who has any combination of anxiety, depression, and trauma is susceptible to maladaptive coping mechanisms, and if they experience body shaming, food policing, and dieting, they are likely to develop eating disorder behaviors.


Definitions

Eating Disorder Behaviors: any combination of food restriction, food consumption, food purging, and compulsive exercise. These behaviors are accompanied by an obsession with the body’s appearance. Eating disorders occur along a spectrum, and a large proportion of our society engages in eating disorder behaviors.

Body Shaming: the act of shaming a person for their body size, shape, color, weight, ability, and appearance. Parents frequently are unintentional body shamers who are trying to help their children “be healthy” which in our society means to lose weight and be thin.

Food Policing: the act of shaming a person for their food choices as “unhealthy” or “bad choices.” Parents frequently are unintentional food shamers who are trying to help their children “make good choices” which in our society means avoid foods that supposedly lead to weight gain (e.g. carbs, fat, etc.). 

Dieting: any eating and/or exercise conducted with the purpose (sometimes unconscious) of weight loss. Most “wellness lifestyles” are diets in disguise. Parents frequently introduce dieting to their children, despite the fact that diets do not improve health and lead to weight gain and eating disorders.


Middle school is stressful

The stressful conditions of adolescence, during which bodies undergo massive changes, combined with a culture that is obsessed with a very specific “ideal” body type, are fertile ground for eating disorders. 

About 30% of girls and 24% of boys report daily bullying, teasing and/or rejection based on their body size. These numbers are doubled (63% of girls and 58% of boys) for high school students who are living in larger bodies. [1]

It’s dangerous online, too. Way back in 2011, 16% of high school students were victims of electronic bullying in the previous year. [2] This number has undoubtedly skyrocketed since then.

This is why it’s important for parents to talk with their kids early and often about eating disorders, body shaming, food policing, and dieting. Our kids are going to be exposed to all of these dangerous practices, and the best protection we can offer is education and support as they navigate the culture in which we live.

Talking to kids about middle school body shaming

If you have a child who is in middle school, remember that body shaming can happen to kids of all genders and of all body types. Both boys and girls are the recipients and the perpetrators of body shaming.

Talk about body shaming: Talk about body shaming early and often with your child. Become educated about Health at Every Size and make sure that you are not your child’s primary body bully. Children are extremely sensitive to parental judgment, so if you have negative feelings about your child’s body, they likely sense your disapproval. Also, make sure that you are not bullying your own body or that of anyone else. This includes criticizing people in the airport, on busses, and on television for their body sizes.

Clap back at body shamers: Model to your child how they can “clap back” at body shamers (as seen by Lady Gaga, Busy Phillips, Chrissy Teigen, Rhianna, and others). They should be prepared for body shaming face-to-face as well as via text and on social media.

Help them develop a few scripts ready to go for the most common body taunts. Work on these with your child – make sure they feel as if they own them. Ideally, the responses should be crisp and maintain a sense of personal power. For example:

  • I don’t recall asking you for your opinion on my body.
  • Dude, what are you, a body shamer? Dumb.
  • Haven’t you heard? It’s 2019 and people aren’t body shaming any more.
  • No, I’m not pregnant. Are you?
  • The last thing I care about is what you think about my body.
  • I don’t appreciate you commenting on my body.
  • Thanks, I like my body. Thankfully my opinion of myself is not dependent on your opinion of me.

The old advice to just ignore it or walk away may work sometimes, but if your child is physically safe, you can encourage them to speak up for themselves. The key is for them to feel confident and as if they deserve to talk back to a body bully (which they do!).

Shake it off

It would be great if nobody was ever body shamed again. But it’s unlikely that we’ll see a massive cultural shift as long as your child is living with you. So for now, it helps to teach your child some tricks for shaking off body shaming comments. Here is some advice for shaking off the negative feelings we get after encountering body shaming:

  • Talk it out with someone you can trust. Shame thrives in secrecy, so talking about body shaming incidents can help reduce the sting.
  • Remember that other people’s words do not define who you are as a person.
  • Think about whether you can/should take any corrective action.
  • Stay away from the person/people who body shamed you.
  • Block and report online body shamers on social media platforms.
  • Block body shamers from texting or phoning you.

Report bullying

It’s true that we can’t protect our children from all forms of body shaming. In fact, most of us experience body shaming in our own homes! However, if you suspect that your child is being bullied in a way that is dangerous to their mental and physical health, please reach out for support.

It can help to keep a record of incidents for a short period of time to help document the body bullying. This should log the date, time, person(s) involved, verbal and physical actions.

Speak with your child’s school principal and school psychologist and get a copy of the school’s bullying policy. Hopefully, they will respond to the situation adequately. If you feel your child’s school is not doing enough to protect your child, seek the support of a trained psychotherapist who can help you navigate the tricky task of parenting a child who is being bullied. They should be able to support you in both reporting the problem and helping your child through this situation.

References

[1] Bullying Bullycide and Childhood Obesity

[2] Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey

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