Weight is the most common reason why Maine schoolkids are bullied

Patty Wight reported this story with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

For Maine families depending on SNAP for groceries, every penny counts

Low-income Maine children more likely to be obese

Research shows that the No. 1 reason that kids say they are bullied is their weight. And it’s not just from other kids — adults can also be the source of teasing and shaming.

In the final installment of our weeklong series on poverty and obesity, we look at the power of social stigma and bias around weight, and the effects they can have on a child.

Fourteen-year-old Emily Mott likes to swim and play with her new puppy. She loves watching do-it-yourself videos on hair accessories and baking. But she says gets bored sometimes, and to fill that space, she says she used to turn to food.

“Eating a lot when I wasn’t feeling good,” she says.

Things haven’t always been easy for Emily. Her parents are divorced. Her mom, Janet Mott, developed health issues after Emily was born, and says she wasn’t around much when her daughter was young.

When Emily started living with her full time about a year and a half ago, Janet says she wanted to show her daughter that she loved her in any way possible.

“I just wanted to make up for everything I’d lost and give her everything she wants,” she says. “So every night, I’d let pick her own supper. Pick her own snacks. ‘Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you.’ And I didn’t realize how bad of a mistake I was making.”

Emily says she was eating a lot of chips and soda. Often, she ate for emotional reasons. And she started to gain weight, which then led to more emotional struggles. She says peers at school made fun of her.

“They would just call me fat, and it wasn’t nice,” she says.

Weight is the most common reason a child is bullied at school, says Dr. Rebecca Puhl. She’s deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Weight bias, she says, starts early.

“Preschoolers are already prescribing negative stereotypes to peers who look heavier than they do,” Puhl says.

Teasing and bias can come from adults too, says Puhl — teachers, parents, even health care providers. There’s a perception, she says, that stigma around unhealthy weight motivates kids to lose weight. But she says shaming often exacerbates weight issues.

“They will turn to food to cope with the stress and emotional turmoil from this,” Puhl says. “They will increase the amount of food they’re eating, engage in unhealthy eating behaviors like binge eating.”

Obesity is a complex, chronic disease, says Puhl, that is driven by factors that go far beyond personal eating behavior to external forces such as increased portion sizes in restaurants and in snack foods, and an increase in marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages.

“We really couldn’t have done a better job in creating a society to promote obesity,” Puhl says. “We live in a society where unhealthy behavior is the default. And we need to switch that to create an environment where healthy behaviors are the default.”

To that end, a program in midcoast Maine has set out to create a mini ecological healthy zone for kids struggling with weight.

“With the kids in Zing! — these are families that have a lot of struggles,” says Marie Ilvonen, a social worker with Zing!, which us run by Waldoboro Family Medicine. “They have financial struggles, they have struggles with transportation. Sometimes homelessness. So nutrition, oftentimes, can be lower on the ladder of what their needs are.”

Ilovnen says that Zing! brings together a team of professionals to work intensively with kids over the course of a year to develop healthy habits. The team includes a primary care provider, a dietitian, a physical therapist, and an exercise specialist.

Ilvonen’s specialty is behavioral health, and she says a lot of the kids have anxiety and depression.

“I look a lot at emotional eating,” she says. “Just educating kids around, ‘Do you eat when you’re bored? Do you eat when you’re worried? Do you eat when you’re upset? What are some strategies you could do instead?’ So helping kids develop better coping strategies. Also helping them process some of the complex problems in their families.”

At least once a month, kids come in for themed group visits to talk about issues like bullying, or to try activities such as karate or cooking. During a recent visit, some of the participants painted their nails. Ilvonen says these are activities that kids can do, instead of eating, to make themselves feel good.

As Emily Mott lets bright purple polish dry on her nails, Ilvonen talks with Emily’s mom about her healthy eating goal.

“Her goal is to eat one or two fruits or vegetables a day,” Ilvonen says. “Right now she’s getting either zero or one.”

Waldoboro Family Medicine has used Zing! for three years, and the long-term effect on kids is unclear. Ilvonen says it’s a big undertaking, and requires buy-in from the whole family to succeed. Janet Mott says she’s committed, but admits that it’s challenging.

“Trying to do it all on a low budget and eating right and getting to all of the dietitian appointments and the physical therapy appointments, and Zing! appointments and the counseling appointments — it takes a lot, but it’s so important.”

Emily Mott has done Zing! for three months now, and she says she’s making progress.

“I’ve been starting to become more confident with myself,” she says.

She’s quit drinking soda. And things are better at school.

[This story was originally published by Maine Public Broadcasting Network.]

Photo by Patty Wight/Maine Public Broadcasting Network.