Little information exists about antifat discrimination in schools. That provided below was compiled from database searches, consultations with experts and advocacy organizations, requests to selected state Associations, and a few responses to an NEA Online request for anecdotal material from members.
Student-Student Interactions by School Level
At the nursery school level, YES, nursery school, children run up against the American obsession with weight in their relations with each other. I have parents ask me all the time, "what do you mean a child can have body image issues when they are only 4 years old." You better believe it. When you have a 4 year old girl that takes ensure in her lunch to school, there is a problem. When you ask the girl why she is only DRINKING ensure and she says "This is what my Mommy eats everyday."
Studies by University of Vermont psychologist Esther Rothblum reveal:
- Even very young children rate drawings of fat children more negatively than drawings of children with physical disabilities (Rothblum 1993).
- One such study shows that after nursery-schoolers viewed drawings of Black and white children in wheelchairs, on crutches, without arms or legs, and as facially disfigured or obese, they said they liked the amputee and obese figures least.
- Rothblum's other findings show that children prefer thin rather than fat rag dolls, and that even fat children prefer thin dolls (Rothblum 1992).
At the elementary level, children learn that it is acceptable to dislike and deride fatness. Who teaches these children that? That is what we must ask ourselves.
- Studies show that fat children are less likely than others to receive best-friend ratings from their classmates (Rothblum 1992).
- By the second grade, Michael P. Levine, psychologist and author of an NEA publication on adolescent eating disorders (1987), states: "children are using negative words to describe the silhouette of a fat child: dirty, lazy, sloppy, ugly, and stupid".
- By the fourth grade, children are already saying: "Fat girls aren't like regular girls," and "They aren't attractive" (Rothblum 1992). Yearning to be thin, one little girl counts calories, a second drinks Diet Coke, and a third jogs "to get blubber off my legs."
At the secondary school levelSocial pressures combine with negative attitudes about fatness. For fat students, the high school experience is miserable. Isn't it time for Body Rocks?
After reviewing a related article by the New York Times, The Burdens of Being Overweight: Mistreatment and Misconceptions, By GINA KOLATA, Published: November 22, 1992, I thought to myself as a parent, teacher, sibling, aunt, whatever my role may be in one's life, "How sad is this? Yet, how relevant is this to our society today in schools?" Read this:
"Aleta Walker never had any friends during her childhood and adolescence in Hannibal, Mo. Instead, she was ridiculed and bullied every day. When she walked down the halls at school, boys would flatten themselves against the lockers and cry, 'Wide load!' But the worst was lunchtime, she said. "'Every day there was this production of watching me eat lunch.' Ms. Walker said. She tried to avoid going to the school cafeteria. 'I would hide out in the bathroom. I would hide out behind the gym by the baseball diamond. I would hide in the library.' One day, schoolmates started throwing food at her as she sat at a table at lunch. Plates of spaghetti splashed onto her face, and the long greasy strands dripped onto her clothes. 'Everyone was laughing and pointing. They were making pig noises. I just sat there,' she said."
A survey conducted in 1987 by the Sacramento-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) suggests this to be outrageous behavior that is widespread (Rothblum 1989).
- Half of the 445 male and female respondents in this membership survey said they bore the brunt of antifat jokes and received negative nicknames in junior and senior high school.
- Between one-fourth and one-fifth of the male respondents said that in junior and senior high they were threatened with violence or were physically assaulted because of their weight. Some respondents reported--
". . . being left out of parties and dances, being ridiculed in gym class, not being chosen for school sports, being left off the honor roll, feeling isolated, having food thrown at them, being told to sit in the back of the class, and not fitting on the small school chairs."
As a result, academic achievement suffers.
- Studies, dating to the 1960s, show the effect of this cruel behavior on the academic life of fat students, especially fat girls.
- A 1967 study shows negative effects of obesity on high school performance (Canning 1967).
- A 1966 study shows that obese students, especially obese girls, are less likely than the nonobese to be accepted by the more competitive colleges (Canning 1966). This is true even if the girls' grades, standardized test scores, and other variables are the same as for other boys and girls.
- Another study shows that obese girls have fewer dates and participate in fewer school activities than their thin classmates do (Bullin 1963).