More than 55% of young people in Britain have been bullied about their appearance (with 40% of those experiencing this once a week) and despite a reported boom in cyberbullying, 72% of these interactions happen at school.
Most of the bullying focuses on weight or body shape, according to the research by youth charity YMCA, which found 60% of children had tried to change the way they looked after being bullied, with 24% going on a diet or reducing the amount they ate.
And this doesn’t only having a short-term impact on children’s mental health – 9% of the thousand 11- to 16-year-olds surveyed admitted self harming and 10% had suicidal thoughts – it also causes long-term problems too.
Hannah Lewis, 24, originally from Manchester now living in London, was bullied from nine years old onwards. She told HuffPost UK: “Being bullied when I was younger has definitely changed who I am as a person.”
Lewis has experienced mental health problems, including body dysmorphic disorder, depression and agoraphobia, ever since. “Appearance anxiety can seem trivial because there is still an unfair association that body image equals vanity,” she said. “In fact, body image can be fundamental to how we think about ourselves as a person.
“There were a couple of individuals who were relentless. Inventive nicknames were created for me which insulted my height, my skin or my braces.”
A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2015 found that children who were bullied frequently when they were 8 years old were more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder that needed treatment as an adult, compared with kids who were not bullied.
And it isn’t just a problem faced by primary school children, Michelle Elman, 24, from London was body shamed throughout her secondary education. And not just by her peers. “One particular teacher would always make comments about my size in front of my friends,” she explained. Her friends also created a Facebook page called ‘Michelle Stop Eating’.
“It rocks your self-esteem and embeds a message that you, and your body, are not good enough. This goes on to be the pattern of thoughts that you replicate in your adulthood. The voices around you when you are a teenager become your inner voice and are the example that you use, to learn how to treat yourself,” said Elman.
Elman did not tell her parents about the bullying, because she was at boarding school, but says she wishes they had known.
I feared that they would agree with the bullies and think the same things about my appearance…”
How can parents support their kids against appearance-related bullying?
The YMCA says that all parents should think about the way they discuss self worth and body image at home, regardless of whether or not their child is being bullied.
Body positive language: The way we speak about other people’s bodies is important. When a lot of people are watching TV, they can be quite critical of what they see on screen, eg. ‘She shouldn’t be wearing that outfit,’ or, ‘They look too big,’ or, ‘They look too skinny’. It’s easy for people to say stuff they wouldn’t say in person about people they’re watching on TV, often in front of their own children. Disparaging other people’s bodies then becomes the norm and children may assume those types of comments are made about their own bodies by strangers too.
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ foods: As an adult, it’s very easy to worry about our own weight and say things like ‘I probably shouldn’t have that’, but if you label certain foods as ‘bad food’ that’s something young people will think too, regardless of the context within which you’re saying it.
Commenting on their size: Pointing out how your child’s appearance has changed is risky, even if you mean it as a compliment. It might imply that something was wrong with their appearance before, and may put pressure on them to continue looking that way. While it’s important for parents to notice changes to their children’s health, this needs to be tackled with caution, and in a positive way – encouraging them to join a sports team or help you cook healthy meals, for example.
And if you have found out that your child is being bullied then the YMCA says listen, really listen, with your full attention. Give them opportunities to speak, but acknowledge they might not want to until they feel ready. Understand that what they’re feeling is acceptable, even if it feels bad to them at that time.
Try to avoid patronising your child, belittling what they say, or bombarding them with questions. A two-way chat is much better or dismissing what they’re feeling.