Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

More Emirati students being bullied about their weight, research shows

Of 420 students in universities in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, 184 (44 per cent) reported suffering with some kind of teasing or bullying about their weight and of those, 108 (60 per cent) said it had led to eating disorder-type behaviours.
In a study of Emirati students, researcher Lily O’Hara found weight stigma to be a growing issue. Ravindranath K / The National
In a study of Emirati students, researcher Lily O’Hara found weight stigma to be a growing issue. Ravindranath K / The National

ABU DHABI // A preoccupation with body image is leading to rising numbers of Emirati students reporting being bullied about their weight, according to researchers.

Nearly half of 420 students – 184, or 44 per cent – surveyed in universities in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah reported suffering teasing or bullying about their weight. Of those, 108 said it had led to eating disorder behaviours.

“I wanted to look at the concept of weight stigma. It’s an emerging concept,” said lead researcher Lily O’Hara, a student counsellor at the Emirates College of Advanced Education.

“What’s been looked at is the prevalence of eating disorders but we haven’t looked at that [stigma] based on how people are treated based on their body weight; if they’re teased, discriminated against, treated poorly.”

The findings indicated that the problem “seems to be increasing”, although the degree of body image dissatisfaction seemed consistent with many other countries.

The study, where the average age of the participants was 23, found the highest levels of eating disorders and feelings of low self esteem of any study on the topic to date, with 30 per cent reporting such symptoms compared with an average of 20 per cent in earlier studies.

“I think our almost global preoccupation with well-being and physical appearance perhaps contributes to these unhealthy attitudes,” said psychologist Justin Thomas, from Zayed University, who was part of the research team.

“What worries me is that we are also increasingly seeing employers giving employees ultimatums, such as lose weight or look for a new job.

“This happens even in places where weight has no bearing on the job function.

“If you put pressure on people to drop weight, you run the risk of increasing problem eating.”

He said more intervention was needed.

“The most worrying part is that it seems to be occurring younger – [even] burdening six-year-olds with weight-related woes,” he said.

Alia Al Suwaidi, 22, is training to be a teacher at the Emirates College of Advanced Education. She said there was constant pressure on young girls and women “to look a certain way” or “to have a certain body type”, more so than in her parents’ generation.

“It wasn’t something that was so valued before,” she said. “There weren’t such expectations. Now, it’s like [having the perfect body] it’s the most important thing in a girl’s life and everyone is obsessed with this perfect body type.”

She believed it was not just girls who suffered.

“My brother has been through it,” she said.

“He has been teased for his weight by other boys. Girls do it more behind your back, whereas boys just say it to each others’ face.”

Her sister, now 12, also has a different experience to when Ms Al Suwaidi was growing up.

“When I was younger, it wasn’t an issue for me but my little sister is 12 now and she’s more conscious of not wanting to get fat.

“At her age, I never even thought about it. It wasn’t important to me.”

As a trainee teacher, Ms Al Suwaidi would like to see the stigmas discussed more in schools, to help girls manage the challenging time more healthily.

“Teachers should really address it,” she said.

“You never really talk about these things in a school context.”

The results of the survey were published in the peer-reviewed journal, Appetite.

mswan@thenational.ae

Updated: February 11, 2016 04:00 AM

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