If you do a Google image search of the term "bully," you are likely to find images of kids and their peers – a big tough kid being mean to a wimpy kid, or a queen bee making fun of a wannabe. Honestly, if I were to ask you to describe a bully you’d probably offer up something similar.
When we think of bullies, we think of mean kids, but as a fat person, the most brutal bullies from my childhood were full grown adults. This week is BEDA’s Weight Stigma Awareness Week and one of the themes of the week is weight stigma and bullying, so I figured this was as good a time as any to point out that it’s really a shocking and horrifying mess when grown ass adults are contributing to the bullying of kids.
In elementary school, middle school and high school the majority of the fat shaming directed at me took place in situations that involved physical education and gym teachers. The prevailing notion in athletic environments is that fat people cannot and will not succeed at fitness.
Full disclosure, I am not all that competitive. “Winning” has never motivated me; helping, healing, caring, creating – these are the things that drive me. What that meant was in situations like camp or gym, where competitive sports ruled the roost, I was easily distracted from the goal. I was also physically different from my peers – in those days not fat per se, but heavier and slower. There were assumptions made about me based on my motivation, athletic prowess and body size.
There were little things – moments like public weigh-ins and uniforms that were uncomfortable, too short or too small. Honestly, when I see in news that we are demonizing fatness and creating fat phobia by sending perfectly average kids home with scolding BMI reports, I want to puke. I remember the feelings of condemnation – the distaste for my size and the constant failure of educators to recognize that body weight and appearance are the main spaces in which we see cruelty directed towards kids.
As a kid, when I spoke up about my discomfort in these situations, there was no attempt to truly create a policy that changed the situation or provided an accommodation, like gym clothes that fit well. These moments should be things adults try to curb, but somehow we fail miserably at resolving the issues that fat kids face.
For example, being a fat kid meant that I was pretty much always picked last for teams. I’m sure you’ve seen this in movies if you haven't experienced it yourself, but basically my gym teacher would pick two captains, and then those captains would pick the players they wanted on their teams. The whole idea that an adult would set up a situation where kids could slowly but surely ostracize other kids and point out who the least-wanted peers were is egregious.
Literally, my gym teacher created a situation than enabled other kids to bully me. When I went home crying and my parents approached the school about the policy, the solution was to have me pick the teams. How did no one realize that the solution didn’t solve the problem? Sure, I was no longer picked last – but some kid was going to be.
In addition to creating situations that enabled other kids to shame me – there was also little repercussion for those that treated me poorly based on my body weight. There were instances when other kids bullied me and the teacher condoned the behavior by not reprimanding the bullies. In the locker room – I often got called names or teased while I was changing. I asked if I could change in the bathroom and my gym teacher told me to grow a thicker skin or do something about my size.
Furthermore, I was actually routinely publicly shamed and chastised by my gym teachers. Do you remember the Presidential physical fitness test? Honestly, I cannot believe this nightmare still exists. The Presidential fitness test is a series of exercises like pull-ups, burpies, wall-sits, crunches etc. The test is administered in the gym in a large group, so that all your peers are privy to your success or failure. I remember being asked to do a pull up. I remember hanging from the bar praying that somehow I would defy my reality and lift my body weight. I remember feeling shame and embarrassment and I remember my gym teacher compounding those feelings by sighing, shaking her head and saying, “Averill, zero,” so that everyone could hear.
Did you have to run laps in school? I did. We would all start in one big group – a mass of twelve year olds running. I would run. I would run till my face was beet red and I was sweating buckets. I would run till I was out of breath with a stitch in my side and still I would be last or on a good day close to last. Inevitably, there would be a teacher hollering – drawing attention to the fact that I was the worst runner. Calling me names, threatening punishments, “Let’s go, slowpoke,” “Last one in is a rotten egg,” “If you don't hurry up, I’ll make you run and extra lap.”
Some of you may be reading this and thinking, Oh, that’s just tough love. They were just trying to encourage you. And, although studies show that gym teachers are prone to fat bias, I am willing to concede that maybe on some level they didn't realize the damage they were doing.
That said, I went home and cried about my experiences in gym regularly. I begged my parents to write me notes about sprained ankles or other gym-excusing injuries. I felt tortured and traumatized. I felt hated and cast as a loser. I was a kid and they were adults. It was their job to protect me from torture, not be complicit in it.
And side note, it literally took me years to realize that I like to be active. My experiences in gym class taught me that I wasn’t an athlete and I hated exercise. It’s only in my thirties, since I found the fat acceptance movement, that I’ve realized that I love to move and use my body and that I’m strong, capable and genuinely athletic. Thanks for screwing that up for me, gym class.
Gym wasn’t the only arena in school where I was demeaned based on my fatness. I was a theater geek and a singer and honestly, I had some talent. I was continually cast in school plays but I was never the lead. I was often cast in roles that were older women or parts that were originally scripted for men.
In fact, once, while I was standing there, my mother complained that I deserved a shot at a leading role, and the school drama teacher exclaimed, “Well really, Lindsey isn’t exactly an ingénue, you know.” I was a senior in high school and I weighed 160 lbs. Just out of curiosity – what’s not ingénue-y about that? Oh right, thanks teach, for reminding me that even marginally fat girls can’t be love interests.
Fat hatred and the bullying of fat kids is a learned behavior. There is no evidence that fat shaming makes kids healthier – in fact there is evidence to the contrary. Kids are being told left and right that being fat makes them unworthy, unwanted and unacceptable – they do not need this message to be coming from the people who are meant to protect them and keep them safe. I’m lucky because my parents were always in my corner. There are many fat people who as kids suffered bullying at home and at school.
I want to be hopeful, I want to think that it’s getting better – that fat kids suffer less, that people realize that this treatment leaves life long scars. And then I hear a story like the one about the home economics teacher in Long Island who, when teaching sewing, used a lesson plan entitled, “How not to look fat.”
There is progress. People complained and the local news scolded this teacher – but how did she think the lesson was appropriate in the first place? How did she not realize that employing fat shaming to teach sewing might be royally uncomfortable for fat kids?
So, how about we just end fat-shaming and weight stigma all together. Okay? Good, it’s settled.