How to address appearance-based bullying & teasing in young people
Today, Friday 18th March, is National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence.
The 2022 theme is Kindness Culture, which highlights that by building “Kindness Culture” together, we can promote inclusion, respect and community belonging for all students in schools across Australia. This theme is perfectly matched to our Prevention and Education programs, where being Body Kind is a key focus. Being kind to ourselves, our bodies and others’ can help build healthy body image and supports mental health and wellbeing.
In light of National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, our Prevention team have put together a number of tips on how to address appearance-based bullying and teasing in young people, as this can have a significant and long-term impact on a young person’s self-esteem and body image, which can be carried through to adulthood.
Research frequently highlights that appearance bullying and teasing negatively impacts mental health and is a significant risk factor to the development of disordered eating and eating disorders.
Further, up to 58% of primary-school age children (5-8 years) have reported appearance-related teasing from peers[i], while appearance-related teasing has been associated with disordered eating attitudes and behaviours in children as young as 8-12 years old.[ii]
This doesn’t stop as children enter adolescence. According to the “Growing up in Australia” longitudinal study of Australian children, body discrimination, due to body size, shape or physical appearance, is the most widespread type of discrimination among teens overall. One third of teens between the ages of 14-17 reported at least one instance of body discrimination, which is concerning given this is a time where teens are vulnerable to peer approval and are often focused on their appearance.
Sadly, many young people, in an attempt to stop the bullying/teasing, feel that if they reduce their size or change the way they look, the bullying will stop. Unfortunately the behaviours they may adopt to do so can cause other issues for that young person and increase their risk of developing serious eating and body image issues.
In a recent survey conducted by Butterfly, 65% of adult respondents self-reported that appearance-related teasing contributed to their own body image/eating concerns during primary school. 38% reported appearance-related bullying (i.e., repeated victimisation) as a contributing factor [iii].
It is also important to note that negative impacts do not just occur with targeted bullying. Any negative comment, perhaps posed as ‘banter’, or those masked as affection from a family member or even said as a joke or to get a laugh, can have a negative and long-lasting impact on a young person’s body image.
While any child may be at risk of experiencing appearance-related teasing, it does occur more frequently in higher weight children, as well as children with visible differences. Children with an early or late onset of puberty are also at greater risk of experiencing body and appearance teasing[iiii].
What actions can parents take?
As parents, it is important to know that there are a spectrum of behaviours that range from rudeness, conflict amongst peers, teasing and targeted bullying. If your child shares with you something that has happened, it is important to stay calm. While it is upsetting and distressing to hear your teen share that they are being bullied, it is important to remain calm, stay open and respond in a supportive and compassionate way; this will help keep the lines of communication open.
Parents shouldn’t dismiss or disregard comments but instead work to empower your child and help to build their resilience.
If a parent is concerned that comments/teasing is increasing and bullying is happening, there are a number of bullying specific resources that parents can access to help guide next steps. This includes speaking with leadership/management staff at the school/club and perhaps exploring individualized support for your teen through counselling. It is important to remember that bullying is a complex issue and challenging to manage when it occurs in schoolyards or among young people.
- Be compassionate and supportive of your child. Listen without judgement and respond calmly.
- Empower and help your child to process the experience in the most positive way.
- Contact the school/club – access the anti-bullying policy so you are aware of what is in place to manage bullying.
- Continue to support your teen – keep lines of communication open.
- Create a Body Kind environment at home (Butterfly’s Body Kind Families can help you do this!). Building a safe and supportive environment where your teen’s body is accepted and respected offers a safe place for them to thrive.
- Be informed and explore anti-bullying specific resources (see the end of this article)
- If you are concerned about your child’s development, please seek professional support from a trusted health professional – a GP or Pediatrician (ideally one who adopts a health not weight approach).
How should parents respond?
A fear of many parents is that their child will struggle with their body image, or that their child’s body size or appearance may make them a target for body dissatisfaction, teasing/bullying or eating disorders.
As parents it is important to continue to remind yourself that your child’s body is not wrong or a problem to be fixed – it’s the body standards and ideals that are wrong. It’s the language and attitudes of the bully or individual that is the problem, regardless of their body size or how they look.
Through media, social media, advertising and weight loss and fitness industries, young people are constantly bombarded with the message that being thin and lean is better and that there is a right and wrong way to look. If you have a teen whose body or appearance has become the target of another young person, consider these points to helps address the situation:
- Take time out to listen to your young person. Do not dismiss or diminish your teen’s experience, ensure you give them the chance to openly communicate what has occurred and acknowledge how the incident may have impacted them.
- Whilst validating their experience, it’s important to remind your teen that the bullying is not their fault. Explain to them that they, nor their body, are to blame for being bullied, and that it’s the person bullying them that should be held accountable.
- If it’s banter and joking that is being used and is making your teen feel uncomfortable, encourage them to be assertive and remind your child that a person’s body isn’t a joke, or something that others are entitled to comment on.
- Do not suggest or encourage them to change their appearance in the hope of minimizing the bullying. Shrinking themselves is not the answer. Their body and appearance are not the problem (you might need to repeat this many times).
- Encourage compassion and empower your teen to understand the many reasons why people tease or bully others. Explain to them that the person bullying them may feel sad and angry themselves and that by bullying someone else they are attempting to project their feelings and make another person feel the same way.
- If they feel they can, encourage your teen to stand up for themselves or others in an assertive way. Sometimes, calling out bad behaviour is something not even adults can do, so if they can’t, they are not weak. Instead, they should try to ignore, steer clear and if it’s online use the safety tricks in place – mute, unfollow or report.
- Keeping the lines of communication open is so important, but it can be challenging as they move away from parents and closer to their friends. But finding ways to connect and chat is important as they move through the teen years. Be available when they need you and trust your instincts. Some parents who have had young people struggling with eating issues and mental health challenges report that they ‘just knew something wasn’t right’.
- Remind them that they do not have to go through this experience in isolation and that you will be discreet. Young people often don’t share as they are embarrassed or fearful that it will increase what’s happening. Let them know that you are on their team and there to support them. If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, ensure that they have another trusted adult they can turn to. If they can’t manage it themselves at school, intervene by speaking with school staff and the wellbeing team. It takes a village!
Is there anything parents shouldn’t do?
If your teen is being bullied it’s important not to:
- Tell them to ‘turn the other cheek’ or ‘forget about it.’ Bullying can be incredibly troubling and potentially traumatising; it is not something to be ignored. Ensure you validate your child’s experience, because hoping it just goes away can have long-term impacts for your young person.
- Encourage them to lose weight or change their appearance if they’re being bullied about how they look. This could result in very poor body image for your teen and potentially harmful eating and exercise behaviours. Instead, remind them that they are so much more than their weight, body shape, muscles, hair/skin colour, complexion, weight, or height. These things do not define them, and their appearance does not determine their worth.
- Tell them to ‘toughen up.’ Although the situation may sound not so bad to you as an adult, bullying can be deeply emotional for your teen and can impact their self-esteem. By telling them to ‘toughen up’ you’re essentially telling them not to deal with how a situation may make them feel. This is problematic as it encourages your teen to suppress their feelings. It also may mean they are less likely to talk about being bullied if it happens again.
Sample scripts for parents to use
- “I am sorry that those things were said to you, that must have really hurt.”
- “Your body is not the problem”
- “It’s really sad that people think it’s ok to be so nasty or mean about someone else’s body’
- “Is there anything I can do to help?”
- “I wonder why they said that” If the child responds with ‘because I’m ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ you can respond with – ‘Your body/ how you look is not the problem – someone trying to hurt someone else is”
- “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m here for you. Always”
- “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful’ – Why? This suggests that being ‘fat’ is wrong and it unintentionally increases weight stigma and also reinforces beauty ideals.
- ‘They are the ones who are fat or ugly” – Why? While you may be angry and hurt, responding in this way stoops to the bully’s level and again, reinforces appearance as important or that being fat or larger bodied is ‘wrong’ – it is not. All bodies are good bodies.
- ‘What can we do to fix it, maybe we can lose some weight/exercise more” – Why? This suggests that the child’s body is the problem and needs to be fixed. Healthy bodies come in all different shapes and sizes.
- ‘Don’t worry about it” or ‘Don’t be silly’ – Why? Words can and do hurt. If your child is feeling hurt or upset, it’s important that they are encouraged to express their emotions in a safe way. This helps your child to build resilience.
How can teachers help?
Appearance related teasing often begins from a young age in the playground or classroom, and teachers can help by adopting a zero-tolerance approach towards bullying or teasing. This teasing can result in negative body image, with studies reporting body dissatisfaction being experienced by approximately 50% of pre-adolescent girls and, increasingly, pre-adolescent boys.
Primary school teachers can help foster resilience and a create positive foundation for body satisfaction, healthy eating and physical activity during childhood by becoming a Butterfly Body Bright school. Through curriculum activities, lesson plans, school culture guidelines, and professional development training for staff, Butterfly Body Bright empowers Australian children to be:
- BRAVE against appearance teasing
- RESILIENT to unhelpful media messages
- INCLUSIVE of all bodies
- GRATEFUL for their bodies
- HAPPY from joyful movement
- THOUGHTFUL with their eating.
Every child deserves to feel BRIGHT in their body, and Butterfly Body Bright makes a difference – after receiving just one Body Bright lesson, 54% of students reported an immediate improvement in body image.
Australia’s first whole of primary school body image program is currently FREE for Australian primary schools until 30th June 2022. After registering, schools will have 12 months access to implement the program when it works best.
And if you’re a parent who would like to see Butterfly Body Bright at your child’s school, share information about the program with your child’s teacher or the decision makers at your school.
- Butterfly’s Let’s Talk Podcast:
- The eSafety office’s website is particularly helpful if your child is experiencing bullying online
- Kids Helpline
- Reach Out (while designed for 13+ years, information can also be uitlised for younger children) https://parents.au.reachout.com/common-concerns/everyday-issues/bullying-and-teenagers
- Confidence Kit – Dove Self Esteem Project
- Butterfly Body Kind Families (annual event for families every September)