Opinion

An open letter to First Lady Michelle Obama

On behalf of the NAAFA — a civil rights organization dating back to 1969 working to end discrimination against people of size — we appreciate your efforts to start an open, honest dialogue about the ramifications of childhood bullying. We know that bullying during the formative years of childhood, adolescence and teen years results in horrifying emotional and physical trauma, often resulting in suicide. While your appeal to stop bullying has highlighted certain minorities — such as children of certain races and ethnicities, self-identified LGBT children or children with disabilities — you have failed to include one group of children who are frequently subjected to some of the worse bullying: fat children. NAAFA believes that bullying for any reason is wrong and should be stopped at all costs.

As First Lady, you have a unique opportunity to garner public support for a campaign to stop the abusive treatment of so many of our children who are calling out for help. But in doing so, NAAFA believes that an entire group of children — fat children who are suffering the most bullying — cannot be left out of this dialogue.

Furthermore, while your well-intentioned “Let’s Move” campaign promises to wipe out obesity in one generation, it also fuels an entire generation of young Americans to believe they are justified in mistreating, mocking and bullying fat children! Whether you know it or not, by traveling around the country urging children to “get in shape” you are inadvertently sending the message to young fat children that there is something wrong with them, and simply because their weight is “outside the normal range” they need to change. This message has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the notion that it is OK to abuse, bully or pick-on the fat children of America. We submit to you, and our fellow Americans, that it is not OK!

Did you know that multiple studies indicate that fat children represent the group being most bullied?

NAAFA asks that you consider that a new study published in the journal Pediatrics (May 2010) reports that obese children have a higher risk of being bullied, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, social skills, academic achievement or gender; however, this study and its findings are not groundbreaking because there have been others.

In 2006, researchers found that weight teasing in adolescence predicts disordered eating behaviors at five-year follow-ups. The patterns of these associations differ by gender. Reducing teasing through educational interventions and policies may reduce the level of disordered eating behaviors among youths.

Two years earlier another study demonstrated that overweight and obese school-aged children are more likely to be the victims and perpetrators of bullying behaviors than their normal-weight peers. These tendencies may hinder the short- and long-term social and psychological development of overweight and obese youth.

And in 2003, Marla E. Eisenberg, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and Mary Story, all recognized professionals in their field, called attention to the need for physicians and other health care providers to recognize the importance of weight-based teasing for young patients. Policy, programs, and education should focus on increasing awareness of what constitutes weight-based teasing, its potentially harmful effects on adolescents’ emotional well-being, and reduction of this behavior.