It still hurts: Appearance-based teasing when you’re a kid
This episode will go live on 11th April, 2023.
Many of us remember being teased about our appearance in primary school because it happens – a lot. Perhaps we don’t think about it much now, but chances are the experience has left a mark on who we’ve become. The research is clear: Appearance-based teasing is a key risk factor for a child to develop body dissatisfaction which, in turn, can negatively impact their life outcomes, including their mental health, career, and relationships. Body dissatisfaction is also one of the highest risk factors for eating disorders.
“There’s research showing children as young as eight describing their weight and size as a problem, because they’ve experienced appearance-based teasing,” says expert researcher, Dr Steph Damiano. “Appearance-based teasing, which is rife, is also related to more intense disordered attitudes and behaviours around food.” To a large degree, this problem is related to cultural stigmas around size and weight, which can be internalised by children as young as three.
“I was always naturally a very low weight, and also very tall for my age,” says mental health worker, Jenna Abbasi, who has lived this firsthand. “I was teased about my size and height, my colour, my teeth, my hair, my nose…I was labelled as the skinniest person in school and a rabbit. It’s still very difficult for me not to be self-conscious about my body because the social anxiety from that time has never left.”
Psychologist Louise Adams, who counselled clients on body acceptance long before she had her own children, has worked hard to protect them. However, she admits, her larger bodied daughter experienced the full brunt of fat-phobic comments in primary school and still suffers from it.
To address all of this, Butterfly Body Bright was developed in association with experts from La Trobe University to promote body positive peer environments for younger kids. “The program shifts all of our mindsets,” says teacher and pastoral care worker Sarah Price. “We’re not only teaching kids about the impact of what they say to other people, but also what they can say to themselves.”
“The full program is evidence-based, easy-to-execute, and comprehensive about developing a positive body image” says Steph Damiano. In terms of appearance-based teasing, the teachings are all about encouraging children to treat each others’ bodies with respect and to stand up for themselves and others in the face of comments that hurt.
Stephanie Damiano 00:04
So it might be calling someone fat, it might be saying someone’s ears are funny, or that something just something different about their appearance.
Jenna Abbasi 00:12
I stopped participating in everything because I didn’t want people to look at me. So not doing my swimming lessons, I refused to play sport, refused to present any of my assignments in front of class.
Stephanie Damiano 00:22
I think with kids is that they have a tendency to comment on things that are just different to them.
It’s not until you go, hey, that actually can have this impact or hey, think about what you’re really saying to then they get them thinking of what they really mean so, yeah, I think banter is a huge, a huge part of what it can look like.
Louise Adams 00:45
What she said to me is that she just doesn’t want to stand out. She doesn’t want to be different from the other kids. She came home from that really upset. And she said to me, mom, they’re telling me that fat is bad. So I’m bad. We can’t keep doing this to our kids.
Sam Ikin 01:01
This is Butterfly: Let’s Talk. I’m Sam Ikin and in this episode, I’d like to take you back in time, to primary school. Picture the playground or the classroom of your first primary school and thinking about the games you used to play who you’d play them with. For many of us, these are really happy memories. Now think about some of the less comfortable things like when you might have been teased or bullied. Most adults can remember at least a few times that we were teased in the schoolyard and the chances are, these long past interactions have left a mark on who you are. Most of the time we look back and we try to laugh it off but we also remember the pain that it caused and perhaps how it changed how we saw the world and how we saw ourselves. Maybe you can look back and laugh at it now but not all of us can. Researchers are finding appearance based teasing is a key risk factor for development of body dissatisfaction, which can have heaps of negative life outcomes from mental health to employment to romantic partnerships.
Stephanie Damiano 02:02
We’ve got some research that shows in children as young as eight that when they experience weight related teasing specifically, that that’s associated with them seeing weight as more of a problem, and related to more intense, disordered attitudes and behaviours towards eating.
Sam Ikin 02:23
Joining us again on the show in this episode is Dr Stephanie Damiano. She’s the manager of Butterfly’s Body Bright program.
Stephanie Damiano 02:30
So we know that appearance based teasing can have an enormous impact on a child’s mental health. We know that it’s a key risk factor for developing body dissatisfaction, which is then one of the greatest risk factors for the development of disordered eating and an eating disorder.
Sam Ikin 02:48
So what are some examples of things that might be said, that would fall under this category?
Stephanie Damiano 02:54
Well, it can really be any negative comment about appearance. I think when we think about appearance-based teasing, sometimes people think oh, well is that bullying and bullying tends to be the word bullying implies that it’s very targeted and it’s ongoing. Whereas appearance-based teasing can really be any negative comment that’s made about someone’s appearance, body shapes, size, weight, anything about their appearance. And often we hear amongst children that they are weight related. So it might be calling someone fat, it might be saying someone’s ears look funny, or that something just something different about their appearance, and I think with kids is that they have a tendency to comment on things that are just different to them.
Sam Ikin 03:42
All kids can be affected. But it’s the kids with visible differences, including those at either end of the weight spectrum, who were the most vulnerable to negative comments.
Jenna Abbasi 03:52
It really did start in primary school from a young age of what I remember six-years-old in preschool because I didn’t move around a lot. And I was always quite naturally a very low weight, and I was also very tall for my age. And it wasn’t ever something that I was conscious about until people started to bully me for it.
Sam Ikin 04:10
This awesome person who’s agreed to share some of her most vulnerable moments with us is Jenna Abbasi.
Jenna Abbasi 04:16
I’m from Brisbane, Queensland, and I’m a very creative person and I also work in peer work in mental health.
Sam Ikin 04:24
The taunts that were thrown at Jenna is still vivid in her memory.
Jenna Abbasi 04:27
That led them to start bullying me about other things like my teeth, my hair, my nose. And then I was I was labelled as the skinniest person in school and a rabbit and then there were there were memes about me made on Facebook like, you know, like one prayer or the picture of me and people just got got out of hand with bullying me because I’d see one person do it and then you know other people would do it and because I did look different. I was very tough my age, very slim. And I guess it’s just genetics and I’ve had moved to Australia from New Zealand and having an Indian back round there wasn’t many people of my colour in my in my year.
Sam Ikin 05:04
And Jenna says that the emotional toll that this level of bullying took on her in primary school was horrible.
Jenna Abbasi 05:10
I never thought about commenting on other people’s I was really confused. And I stopped participating in everything because I didn’t want people to look at me. So, not doing my swimming lessons, I refused to play sport, refused to present any of my assignments in front of class. And it continued into high school. So then I, you know, started to change how I looked and thought, okay, maybe if I wear more makeup or more more jewellery and change my hair. And then I began carrying like a little mirror in my pocket so I could constantly keep checking how I looked and I started asking people as well, do I look okay, like, are you sure I look okay, before I go into this class, because I knew people in that class, we’re going to, we’re going to look at me and, you know, make comments. And then it really did begin to affect me mentally. And it began to cause a lot of social anxiety and develop into body dysmorphia disorder when I was 13. And it just made me very, very shy, very anxious and just didn’t want to be seen at all.
Sam Ikin 06:06
Like Jenna, I was teased a lot about my size when I was young. And I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t still hurt. I remember at first when I was in grade three, and some kid that I didn’t know wanted to insult me for some reason and blurted out the word fatty, because that’s what kids do. They don’t have to have a clever insult, you just go with the most obvious appearance based thing and say it out loud and by this age, we already know through adults and through other kids, that being fat is wrong, and that a fat person is a bad person. It’s definitely something you don’t want to be. Now I don’t think my experience was any different to way too many other kids. Appearance based teasing has been so normalised that many of us have built up some resilience to it. But some of these taunts stay with this forever. I never felt comfortable in my body, I still don’t. Even in high school, when I was a top athlete, I still considered myself hugely overweight and it was reinforced everyday by the playful tots of my peers, teachers and coaches. And this was all such a long time ago that it really shouldn’t have any power over me at this point. But it does, it really does. And now as a dad with three boys of my own, I see it all happening again and I’m determined to be as positive and influence over their body image as possible. But I’m going to need help with that we need schools and other communities that we’re in to help create a more accepting culture. This issue has so much to do with the cultural stigma around white, which is internalised by children as young as three years old and it’s reinforced by the broader community. Just think about it, is there a larger bodied public figure that you can think of right now who hasn’t been ridiculed for their weight.
Jenna Abbasi 07:45
But I’ve definitely learned to not care about how I look and not I don’t experience bullying anymore, or anything like that, or negative comments but underlying, I’ve always going to have that little bit of self conscious about how I look, and how how I present because that’s social anxiety never left.
Sam Ikin 08:04
Experts advise that we avoid all comments about a child’s appearance, even if they’re compliments. Even positive comments are still based on a person’s appearance, and not who they are or what their bodies can do. So the message is still there, it reinforces the idea that your value is based on what you look like.
Stephanie Damiano 08:21
They might comment on a child’s gorgeous curly hair, and they think that they’re giving a child a compliment. But that child might be incredibly self conscious of their curly hair. And then it might start this internal dialogue of oh, people are noticing my curly hair, and I really wish my hair was straight. And you know, and so it kind of can spiral into, I guess, more body dissatisfaction.
Sam Ikin 08:46
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such deeply ingrained cultural issues. But as parents or carers, we really can affect the attitudes of our children.
Louise Adams 08:56
So I have two kids, they’re both girls, and the oldest is almost 16 now and the youngest is almost 12. They’re very different kids. So one is a smart, the 12 year old, always been in a smaller body. The older kid has probably from five or six became a bigger kid. And so their experience in the world has been really different. My older child has definitely experienced much more of you know, the full brunt of fatphobic comments.
Sam Ikin 09:28
Louise Adams is a clinical psychologist and a podcaster, who runs an online community for people who are recovering from dieting.
Louise Adams 09:35
I’ve always strongly raised both kids to be completely accepting of body diversity, and to be aware of bodies come in different shapes and sizes. No one body is better than another human body. We used to read bedtime stories like the queen with the wobbly bottom, or we have books like my body’s awesome so we’ve always talked about bodies and in a very positive is an accepting and inclusive way. So, you know, diet culture popped up very early for both kids, you know, it started with the lunchbox, policing and daycare. You know, very early on in primary school, multiple kinds of messaging would happen. You know, even just the learning about like cooking and stuff like that whenever cooking pikelets. And teachers are making comments about donate too many pikelets or you’ll get fat and those kinds of things. So it’s, it’s sort of like everywhere, all the time.
Sam Ikin 10:34
Children have higher weight and body size are especially likely to be victims of teasing, bullying and victimisation not only from peers, but also from their family and community, including teachers.
Louise Adams 10:47
So when I remember one time, my daughter came home, maybe she was in year three, or four and she said, I’m I’m one of the boys who, he’s also in a larger body, was teasing me today because you’re fat, and say your mom’s fat. And I said, okay. And then he was sort of saying, and you’re fat to to my, to my child. And the cool thing, you know, at that age, she was able to say, well, so what? And just let it drop.
Sam Ikin 11:17
Good on her. You raised that one right.
Louise Adams 11:21
I know. I well, that you but that’s you know, there was a new three, it’s this kids now nearly 16. It’s much harder. Now. Even with all of my intended bulletproofing from diet culture, my larger bodied teenager, still doesn’t feel good about her body, and still has lots of thoughts about wanting to be smaller and wanting to lose weight. So it just I guess it shows that even if you are completely body positive and completely accepting of body diversity, that it’s still hard to be in this world as a larger bodied kid.
Sam Ikin 11:57
And this is where the stigma from our broader community begins to bike. While things are moving in the right direction, it’s still socially unacceptable for someone to live comfortably in a larger body in many parts of Australia. So it’s up to us to help our kids whatever their appearance so they can thrive in the world that we live in. Experts are now saying that appearance based teasing should be treated as seriously as any other kind of bullying at school. And more and more schools are starting to take action.
They don’t understand what they are really saying. Yeah, lots of those jokes, even if it is between the two closest friends, they’re comfortable with each other and they’re kind of letting it go by and it’s not until you go, hey, that actually can have this impact, or hey, think about what you’re really saying to then they get them thinking of what they really mean so yeah, I think banter is a huge, a huge part of what it can look like.
Sam Ikin 12:51
Sarah Price is a teacher and pastoral care worker from a little school in the Upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales. She says it’s important for teachers to listen to what kids are saying to each other and for developing a sense of how a young person on the receiving end is reacting, because they’re going to need your support.
It’s really important to know your kids. You know, if you know your kids, you can tell when something might be off or, you know, their attitude might be you know, a bit different when they’ve come in from lunchtime, or they’re not playing the usual game they wanted to play or they are choosing to sit out in sport or all the little things that you watch and once you notice that once you kind of go okay, okay, yeah, okay, that’s happened twice now. Okay, and then you kind of go, okay, hang on. Why is this happening?
Sam Ikin 13:37
At Sara’s school, there are clear guidelines about how to deal with appearance based teasing.
I think it’s really important to stay calm when it happens. And to respond to the kids in a supportive and compassionate way. Because it is, it can be a really big thing for the kids to come and say that something’s happened to them, like bullying towards their appearance. And I think it’s also really important to be discreet, because you don’t want the child to be embarrassed or you want them to be open with them and you know, supporting let them know that you support them and you’re happy that they could come and talk to you because then you can you can support them, you can help them. And I think a huge way to respond which which Butterfly has taught us and I think it’s wonderful is that if a child you know a child’s coming up to you they’re going miss such and such is called me fat. And you go oh, you’re not fat, you’re beautiful on her. You’re not fat, don’t believe that? Because then it’s kind of it’s throwing it out there that being you know, larger is not okay or that you kind of you’re telling them no you’re not. And then it’s kind of going that you’re putting that stigma on them to without you know those things that you don’t realise that you’re doing but it’s that language you use that’s so important because you don’t want to reinforce those body and beauty standards. Yeah, it’s your language that you use.
Sam Ikin 15:00
Louise Adams is also really conscious about reinforcing stigma, when we’re actually trying to address it.
Louise Adams 15:05
Why is it important because equality is important. And you know, this, unless we address it, inequality is going to continue. And it’s very important, you know, the things that my daughter’s experiencing. If by virtue, you know, my other child is not experiencing it, just by virtue of whatever is going on with epigenetics, and just what what the body is going to do, it’s completely unfair, that my younger daughter has an easier ride in the world just because of her size.
Sam Ikin 15:41
I remember so vividly. The PE teacher who we all thought was so cool, and whose name was Mr E. And everyone’s like, oh year, we all wanted to be friends with Mr E. And he said, If you can grab more than a handful of fat on your belly, then you are overweight. And then, you know, everybody knew who was talking about. And so I was just looking at the floor and he goes, and I’m talking about you, and you and you and he pointed three kids, and I was one of them. And I remember, that’s, like, ingrained on my in the back of my mind. And it’ll never go away. Why is it so important that we started Primary School to try and address these problems.
Louise Adams 16:15
We start from the beginning, like from scratch, from, if you imagine what a completely inclusive world would look like, then you’d be able to do PE no matter what size you were, you know, it wouldn’t be a thing. And maybe, you know, what goes in our lunchbox wouldn’t be policed as heavily on the basis of size. My daughter had one of those like seared in the back of your brain moments in about year five. So she was in a health class, they were talking about, sort of, I think they were talking about food variety, and like, you know, getting getting foods from a lot of different sources and things like that. But the topic turned to healthy eating. And the teacher was telling them that healthy eating is really important. My daughter said, Why is healthy eating so important? And he said, so we can be at a healthy weight. My daughter said, what’s a healthy weight? And he basically said, you know, BMI, blah, blah, blah, my daughter knew that he was telling her that she is not healthy. She came home from that really upset. And she said to me, mom, they’re telling me that fat is bad. So I’m bad. So we can’t keep doing this to our kids. You know, she was told in an education situation that what she’s doing is her body is bad. Kids can’t differentiate between, you know, a behaviour and themselves. And it’s, that’s, that just made me so angry.
Stephanie Damiano 17:55
If a child comes to you and says that they are being teased, I think the first step is always take a breath, I think as adults, we often want to just dive in and fix it straightaway and make sure that they don’t feel anything negative ever. Which, you know, is a natural instinct, I think, for us to have. So I think the first step is taking a breath and allowing the child to actually explain to you what’s happening, and just to listen to them without judgement. Thank them for telling you because it might have taken a lot, a lot of bravery for them to come and tell you what’s actually been happening. And that might be because they’re feeling ashamed, or all sorts of mixed emotions about it. Then I think which I touched on earlier, but it’s really important to explain that the comments are the problem, their body is not the problem. So we don’t want children to think that they need to change the way they look so that the teasing doesn’t happen again. So we want them to see that. It’s the teasing that’s the problem behaviour. And so, also, as part of that, we don’t want to just say that the comments aren’t true. So we don’t want to say oh, no, but you know, you’re not fat because then that only reinforces weight stigma, or all but you’re just beautiful, you don’t have anything to worry about. It’s actually validating that well, I’m sorry that that’s made you feel that way and you don’t deserve to be treated that way.
Sam Ikin 19:24
The school Sarah works out is part of the Butterfly Body Bright program which is available for every primary school in Australia, free of charge.
We started so he started the programme last year implemented it last year in our school from kindergarten to six and it’s just been wonderful. It shifts our mindset so much in such a positive way. They’re not only teaching the kids about what they should say to other people, they teach the kids what they should be saying to themselves. So as much as it looks like the ways that it’s all about being bright in themselves, so it’s yeah It’s just been fantastic to see and it’s been great for the staff as well, because it, it doesn’t just target the kids, it also targets the staff too. And we’ve changed things in our staff room and the language that we’re using with each other too. And that just will flow on for generations.
Stephanie Damiano 20:16
Butterfly body bright is an Australian first programme that provides primary schools with an evidence based very strength based approach to promoting positive body image and a healthy relationship with eating and physical activity in children. And as a little plug it’s free for schools to register right across the country. In terms of how it helps address appearance based teasing, the programme aims to really target that peer environment, particularly in the curriculum content. And the idea is very much about encouraging children to treat each other with respect, but also to stand up for themselves and others in the face of appearance based teasing.
Sam Ikin 21:04
There’s a link in the show notes that will take you to all you need to know about Butterfly Body Bright, and I encourage you to go check it out.
Jenna Abbasi 21:12
Yeah, I feel like there could be some education around the effects of bullying and some, you know, like, give some students some reality of how that can affect people with lived experience stories, lived experience talk or speaking about how it has affected them so they can see the effects of bullying and that it is traumatising and it can cause severe lifelong effects. So I feel like you know, providing schools with that how bullying can affect people would really give that reality check to young people. So they can see that, you know, maybe right now it’s not affecting them, but later on it could.
Louise Adams 21:47
I’m teaching my kids to be critical thinkers, especially in this area of health and food and all of that kind of stuff. Think Critically, it’s okay. That’s why my kid was like, asking the teacher, these questions are like no one thinks to ask these questions because we just uncritically accept that fat bodies are bad. Thin is good. It’s controllable. If you eat the right way, blah, blah, blah, you can be that thin person. So the most important thing to teach your child is to be a critical thinker. Like if something doesn’t sit right if something doesn’t feel right or if you feel shame because of what the teacher is saying about your body size come home and talk to me about it and we’ll unpack why, why it’s bullshit.
Sam Ikin 22:37
If you’re still interested in Butterfly Body Bight, go to butterflybodybright.org.au and that will tell you how schools can get started. There’s also resources for families in there. And there’s a link to help you invite a school if you would like to suggest that they get involved. If you’re struggling right now with the body image issue or perhaps an eating disorder, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline at 1800 33 46 73 That’s 1800 ED HOPE. You can also chat online butterfly.org.au or email email@example.com to get the ball rolling. Butterfly: Let’s talk is produced for the butterfly foundation by Ikin Media. It’s hosted, edited and produced by Sam Ikin. That’s me. Our executive producer is Camilla Becket, we have lived experience support from Kate Mulray and if you could do us a huge favour and leave us a five star rating and maybe a little bit of a positive review, we would be eternally grateful. I’m Sam Ikin. thank you so much for your company.