Many LGBTQ teens face victimization and bullying because of their sexual and/or gender identity. Now a new study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity finds that weight-related bullying is also extremely prevalent in sexual and gender minority youth, even among those with a low BMI (body mass index).
Weight-based bullying has harmful health consequences, including increased risk for depression, low self esteem, suicidal ideation, poor body image, disordered eating, harmful weight control behaviors, and lower levels of physical activity.
Although there are many studies focused on weight-based bullying in youth, there has been little research on this type of bullying in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) adolescents, despite their high prevalence of obesity and greater risk for victimization.
For the study, researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut looked at the data of 9,838 adolescents who participated in the 2017 LGBTQ National Teen Survey.
This comprehensive survey is conducted in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign to assess victimization, health behaviors, family relationships, and experiences of LGBTQ adolescents across the United States.
The findings reveal that 44 to 70 percent of LGBTQ teens reported weight-based teasing from family members, 41 to 57 percent reported weight-based teasing from peers, and as many as 44 percent reported weight-based teasing from both family members and peers.
In addition, around 1 in 4 teens reported teasing at school, and body weight was the third most common reason that these teens indicated they were teased or treated badly (behind sexual orientation and gender identity).
“Body weight is often absent in school-based anti-bullying policies, and our findings suggest that heightened awareness of this issue may be warranted in school settings to ensure that weight-based victimization is adequately addressed and that sexual and gender minority youth are recognized as potentially vulnerable targets of weight-based bullying,” said lead author Dr. Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the UConn Rudd Center, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.
One key finding was that regardless of the source (family or peers) of weight-based bullying, sexual and gender minority adolescents face these experiences across diverse body weight categories.
The highest rates of weight-based bullying occurred in LGBTQ adolescents who were obese (as many as 77 percent reported these experiences), but high percentages of teens at lower body weight categories were also vulnerable: 55 to 64 percent of those with an underweight BMI reported weight-based victimization.
“These issues warrant attention among health care providers, parents, educators, and all others who interact with adolescents,” said Dr. Ryan Watson, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut and co-author of the study.
“Increased consideration must be given to the intersection of social identities related to body weight, sexual orientation, and gender identity in youth.”
The findings are timely, as a 2017 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommended that pediatricians evaluate youth with obesity for their experiences of victimization and stigma related to their body weight.
“Health care providers should be aware that sexual and gender minority youth can be vulnerable to weight-based victimization, regardless of their body size. Our study suggests that it may be warranted to screen LGBTQ youth for their victimization experiences not only in the context of sexual and gender identity, but also in the context of body weight,” said Puhl.