Bullying is terrible no matter where it starts, whom it targets, or what it is about. Children can be cruel, but then again, so can adults. When it comes to weight bullying, experts are saying that the consequences can be particularly scarring and lead to increased eating disorders. Scary Mommy spoke to Anna Tanner, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, CEDS-S, Vice President for the Department of Child and Adolescent Medicine of Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program to learn more about the correlation between weight-related bullying and eating disorders.
Tanner explained that weight-related teasing tends to create more negative emotions than other forms of teasing. She said that bullying causes anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and body image issues. When children are targeted about their weight, they are particularly vulnerable. This type of teasing can cause drastic changes in eating and exercise habits and can quickly turn into full-blown eating disorders.
Patients with many different eating disorders often attribute the initiation of their eating disorder to bullying. Parents and providers should remember that eating disorders can exist in patients of any age, any gender, and any race and at any weight. Families and medical providers may have less suspicion that an eating disorder is present in younger patients, male patients, and patients who present at ‘normal weights,’” Tanner said .
Many times those who are bullied because of their weight may be considered overweight and the effects of an eating disorder may go unnoticed, or the weight loss may be praised. Parents and medical providers often miss atypical anorexia nervosa in heavier children. But this can lead to severe medical complications and parents need to be vigilant so as not to miss the signs.
Here are things to watch for according to the Emily Program:
- Dramatic weight gain or loss
- Frequently talking about food, weight, or body image
- Excessive exercising or use of compensatory measures to “offset” food intake
- Purging, restricting, or compulsive eating
- Abuse of diet pills, diuretics, or laxatives
- Denial of disordered eating despite concerns of those around them
- Isolating during meal times, eating in secret, or hiding food
- Medical complications such as amenorrhea, fainting, hair loss, osteoporosis, dental problems, heart problems, or other serious symptoms due to nutritional deprivation
Weight-related bullying is not limited to adolescents and teens; it can start as early as preschool age. Tanner said that children as young as three years old have demonstrated weight bias. And obese children are 63% more likely to be bulled than children who are not, she continued. Being overweight is one of the most common reasons for adolescents to be bullied.
“Eating disorders can develop at very young ages. Parents and providers should be aware that the average age of onset of anorexia nervosa is now 12.3 years old and the average age of onset of bulimia nervosa is now 12.4 years old,” she said.
When people think about eating disorders, they often link these conditions to women, but men can also develop eating disorders. According to Verywell Mind, “The most widely-quoted study estimates that males have a lifetime prevalence of 0.3 percent for anorexia nervosa, 0.5 percent for bulimia nervosa, and 2.0 percent for binge eating disorder.” These numbers may seem small, but there are significant.
“Eating disorders are still under-detected and under-diagnosed in males of all ages. Males presenting with eating disorders may also report bullying based on weight. We also know that males with restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, are more likely to have higher weights in childhood, prior to the onset of their eating disorders. These males may be at increased risk of childhood weight related bullying,” said Tanner.
She went on to explain that unlike women who want to be thinner, men tend to be interested in lean masculinity. This can be a more common factor in athletes and racial/ethnic, sexual and gender minority males, she said.
According to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, 30 million Americans have eating disorders and 95% of them are between ages 12 and 25. Eating disorders pose the highest risk of death of any mental illness. Eating disorders do not discriminate and affect all genders, races and all ethnic groups.
Due to the fact that bullying is so prevalent and eating disorders are common, parents should watch for things like excessive concern about weight, obsession with dieting and eating habits, a pattern of weight loss, inability to meet height and weight expectations and loss of periods in girls. Tanner emphasized that if parents see any of these signs, it is important to seek medical attention right away.
“Most persons with eating disorders will need the care of a multidisciplinary team with experience treating eating disorders- a therapist, a dietitian, a medical provider and often and psychiatric provider as well. In addition, parents must understand that children and young adolescents are at particular risk for serious medical complications. Because children and young adolescents have additional energy needs for growth and development – insufficient energy intake can quickly lead to significant medical complications in younger patients,” she said.
Eating disorders can cause irreversible damage to adolescents such as decreased growth potential, improper bone formation and impacts on brain development. If a parent is concerned about disordered eating, they need to seek professional help immediately.
As parents we never want to see our children being bullied or unhappy, but if things do begin to change, it is important to be aware and to keep the lines of communication open. We need to touch base with our children, ask them how things are going at school, and find out if there is anything that they want or need to talk about. Tanner said that parents need not be afraid of labeling behavior as bullying and being proactive about it. She said that ongoing communication is essential for both the parent and the child to work through the difficult times.
Children come in all shapes and sizes. These differences are what make us unique. Having that kind of self-confidence and self-worth at a young age will carry on into adulthood. If you notice that your child’s eating or exercise habits and you are concerned, don’t wait to take action. Tanner suggests that families not talk about weight; rather focus on eating nutritiously and staying active. All bodies are good bodies. The younger our children realize this, the better off they will be.