We live in a world that is obsessed with appearances. Whether we’re looking at images in the media, socializing with others, or even out shopping, our diet-laden culture constantly shoves messages in our faces that have even our children beginning to hate themselves. It’s no wonder that the kids growing up today feel an increasing amount of shame for how they look, especially when they are living in a body that has been universally deemed as unworthy.
It’s already been shown that the key environmental factor for developing an eating disorder is our societal idolization of thinness. By the tender age of six, 40-60% of girls are already feeling concerned about their weight. And 69% of elementary school-aged girls say that media images in magazines portray a seemingly “ideal” body shape that negatively influences how they feel about themselves. Which basically means that our toxic culture is not only sending a message to our young kids that incorrectly teaches them about their worth, but it also encourages a passionate opposition to anyone who doesn’t look societally pleasing.
Nowadays, kids are facing appearance-based bullying at home and in school at an alarming rate. The victimization that a vast majority of our children face poses a critical threat to their mental and physical health and is a dangerous risk factor for low self-esteem and even depression. A new study funded by the Alford Foundation and conducted at Connecticut Children’s will undoubtedly give parents every reason to pause and reflect on the damaging impact this kind of bullying can have on our children, especially when it comes to their bodily size and shape.
Researchers at Connecticut Children’s in Hartford enlisted 1,344 students from five different public schools to participate. An initiative through the PANDA Project (Predictors of Anxiety and Depression during Adolescence), the study was supervised by principal investigator Dr. Christine McCauley Ohannessian, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. It examined the connection between appearance-related teasing and substance abuse in eleven to fourteen-year old children. They discovered that the frequency of an adolescent being bullied for their size and appearance directly increased their potential intake of alcohol and marijuana. Weight-based bullying was also found to be more frequent and led to even more substance abuse and dependency, specifically for girls living in larger bodies.
“Appearance-related and weight-based discrimination appears to be one of the most common and seemingly socially-sanctioned reasons to bully or to dislike someone,” says Melanie Klinck, a clinical research assistant at the University of Connecticut who worked on the study. “I think we all need to confront our implicit biases about weight and ask ourselves what kind of messages we should be sending to the young people in our lives.”
The study suggests that the negative impact any sort of appearance-based teasing can have on a child is profound. Adolescents may avoid school or home depending on wherever the bullying occurs, and this may lead them to socialize with peers who frequently participate in substance use. Kids who are victimized can also feel compelled to lean on alcohol and marijuana as a way to escape or ease the negative emotions they experience from being torn down, which means that many children are starting to self-medicate from a painfully early age.
“Elucidating the direct relationships between appearance-related teasing and substance use, specifically alcohol and marijuana use, is therefore important for the development of substance use prevention programs during early adolescence,” Klinck reports in the study.
The authors believe that parents hold the key to helping kids walk out of their homes and into educational atmospheres feeling more secure and inherently valuable simply by being a loving, empowering, and supportive force in their lives. “My personal opinion is that a societal-level change in attitude will be necessary to address this issue, and parents play a big role in this,” Klinck explains. “I think the most important things to remember are [to] avoid using stigmatizing language when talking about the weight of children, to check in with kids about bullying and also about body image, and to tactfully address those kinds of comments when they hear them.”
According to Klinck, our society also needs to start considering this type of bullying as a legitimate national crisis on par with any other form of bigotry or discrimination. “I’m sure many of us can think of a time when we’ve heard a family member, a peer, or a colleague make an off-hand remark about someone’s appearance or weight,” she says. “Replace that remark with something racist or sexist and (hopefully) someone addresses it immediately. Our society doesn’t seem to be at that point in regard to appearance and weight.”
Since fatphobia is still alive and well in our country, we have a long way to go before weight-based bullying is recognized for the abusive and oppressive act it is. We have an outdated and unnecessary BMI system that is forcing otherwise healthy people to pay higher insurance premiums based on their size. There are weight loss product advertisements that bombard our television screens and teach our kids to unnaturally restrict their food. And in 2019 alone, the diet industry made $72 billion dollars in profits. Even though study after study has begun to challenge the myth that thinness is the only way to achieve lasting health, profit-driven businesses still find boatloads of reasons to keep pushing weight loss efforts onto the general public.
There is a grave problem with how we are prioritizing health in our country, especially as we model and teach it to our children. While “obesity epidemic” warnings reign supreme on media outlets, the National Association of Mental Illness reports that 1 in 6 kids in the US will experience a mental health disorder every year. Fifty-percent of all lifetime mental health disorders start in adolescents as young as 14, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10-24.
Our children are desperate for acceptance, love, and belonging, and yet we continue to buy into the destructive belief that they need to look a certain way in order to achieve those things. The toxicity of diet culture and mounting societal pressures to conform to impossible beauty ideals are quite literally harming our youth from the inside out. And it’s going to take a major moment of recognizing this if we ever want to positively change the world for our children.