Young LGBT people may experience more teasing and harassment about their weight — regardless of their physique — than straight teenagers, according to findings from researchers with the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
According to the data, more than half of overweight and underweight respondents reported weight teasing by either their family or their peers.
“There is a very high vulnerability for sexual and gender minority youth,” said Rudd Center Deputy Director Rebecca Puhl.
Across sexual identities, between 44.1 and 70 percent of respondents reported being teased about their weight by family and between 45 and 57.4 percent reported being teased by their peers about their weight. And 61.6 percent of non-binary teenagers assigned female at birth and 64.4 percent of transgender boys reported weight-based teasing by their families, the Rudd Center study said.
Researchers Puhl, principal investigator Ryan Watson and Mary Himmelstein analyzed 9,838 responses to the Human Rights Campaign’s LGBTQ National Teen Survey in 2017, in which teenagers self-identified among a broad array of sexual and gender identities. Researchers used respondents’ height and weight data to calculate their body mass index.
Puhl said she was struck by how more than half of underweight respondents reported weight-based bullying by either family or peers.
“A lot of times when we talk about weight-based bullying and weight-based teasing, the emphasis is on a higher body weight,” she said. “We really need to be paying attention to this problem for kids, regardless of their body sizes.”
Puhl said many school-based bullying policies ignore language around weight. She said many LGBT youth can benefit from having adult advocates who are proficient in issues around LGBT issues and bullying around weight, such as a physician.
“A lot of kids have multiple stigmatized identities, and that’s what this study is telling us,” she said.
The rate of adolescent obesity is nearly 20 percent, Puhl said.
“Past research shows if they are teased or bullied about their weight, then there are higher levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, poor body image and suicidal thoughts. We see that kids more often turn to food as a coping stratgegy and are more likely to engage in binging or other disordered behavior,” Puhl said. “We also know from longitudinal research that being teased about it predicts weight gain over time and contributes to obesity.”
Puhl said the study was the first to look at the intersection of weight-based bullying in LGBT youth, and it raises questions about how weight-based bullying manifests itself between sexual and gender identities. In past research on the broader population of weight-based bullying, Puhl said bullying can affect boys and girls differently; for boys, it can mean being called names, but weight-based bullying for girls often looks like social exclusion and rumor spreading.