Sue Scheff: Unpopular Girls Gain Weight?

teenobes.jpgBy Connect with Kids 

“There was nothing I could do about it and … as a result, when you feel that left out, you find comfort in other things. And I think one of the things I found comfort in is food.”

– Sarah, 14

Are girls bullied because they are overweight, or do they gain weight because they are bullied? The findings of a Harvard study may surprise you.

In the 4th grade, Sarah was bullied by several of her classmates.

“They just figured, ‘we’ll be cool,’ whatever cool is, and cool was not talking to me,” says Sarah, 14.

She felt hopeless and alone.

“There was nothing I could do about it and … as a result, when you feel that left out, you find comfort in other things. And I think one of the things I found comfort in is food,” says Sarah.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health followed more than 4,000 girls for two years. They found that girls who ranked themselves at the bottom of the social ladder were 69 percent more likely to gain weight than girls who were perceived to have a higher social standing.

“That kind of chronic experience increases the risk of all kinds of unhealthy ways of coping with the negative experience,” says Dr. Randall Flanery, Ph.D., child clinical psychologist.

Unhealthy coping includes overeating.

“Pushing that emotion down with food … pushing that away from having to deal with it … and the comfort, the one thing that is a nice warm hug, is that food which calms them down and makes them feel like, ‘Okay, I’m alright,’” says Marilyn Tanner, pediatric dietician.
Sarah eventually did make friends at her school. What is her advice today for other kids?

“You have to tell someone because even if they don’t do anything about it, even if the situation isn’t helped, talking about it does wonders,” says Sarah.

Tips for Parents

  • Many people who use food as a way of dealing with emotions suffer from “binge-eating disorder.” Binge-eating disorder is characterized by recurrent overeating or binge-eating episodes during which a person feels a loss of control over his or her eating. (National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH)
  • Unlike bulimia, binge-eating episodes are not followed by purging, excessive exercise or fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese. They also experience guilt, shame and/or distress about the binge-eating, which can lead to more binge-eating. (NIMH)
  • Obese people with binge-eating disorder often have coexisting psychological illnesses including anxiety, depression and personality disorders. In addition, links between obesity and cardiovascular disease and hypertension are well documented. (NIMH)
  • If you are overeating often, there are some things that might help you avoid doing so. For example, instead of eating when you’re not hungry, find other ways to keep yourself busy, such as taking a walk or talking on the phone. Try not to snack while doing something else, such as watching TV or doing homework — that’s a set-up for overeating! (Nemours Foundation)
  • Know yourself and your reputation. Get in touch with your values, interests and beliefs. If you are encountering cliques and/or exclusion at school, it’s a good opportunity to ask yourself what you and your true friends give each other. Do you want to be part of a group because you need to feel accepted or because you actually share their values? (Nemours Foundation)
  • Stay involved in activities that make you feel good about yourself. Keep your social circles open and diverse.
  • Speak out. If you feel your group of friends is turning into a clique, take a stand for your beliefs. Be prepared that the clique might go on without you (remember many girls feel threatened by someone else’s strength). Have a mind of your own.
  • Be sensitive to others and don’t go along with what you don’t believe is right — even if others are doing it. You are the only one responsible for your behavior. True friends will respect your mind, your rights and your independent choices. (Nemours Foundation)


  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
  • Nemours Foundation