The first time I heard about the linkage between suicide and bullying in mainstream media was two years ago. It was in the context of suicides committed by lgbt youth who had been systematically harassed/ abused by peers. At the time I felt that something was wrong with the use of the word "bullying" to refer to behaviors that had ultimately led to someone's death. I felt it didn't capture the extremity of the behavior. It didn't really encapsulate the, in fact, violent nature of what was happening, and it didn't capture the complexity and symbolism of the violence itself. Since then, the word "bullying" has increasingly been invoked when discussing public health campaigns targeted at fat children and the fatphobic behavior that fat people (children and adults) experience online and in person.
"Bullying" came up unexpectedly a few weeks ago at the National Women's Studies Association annual meeting. I attended a presentation by Sandrina de Finney and Jo-Anne Lee, on the relationship between colonialism and violence against racialized women and girls. They inspired this post, and both Dr. de Finney and Dr. Lee had critiques that felt very relevant to the invocation of bullying in the discussion of fatphobia.
Bullying is a behavior that pivots on a complex set of social understandings: most relevant for this article is the understanding that the person getting harassed is somehow understood to be outlaw or aberrant and therefore vulnerable and/or disposable. When we use the word "bullying" we cast fatphobic behavior as (1) unidimensional/non-intersectional, (2) child-like, and (3) a natural part of maturing.
When we use the word bullying to talk about institutional and interpersonal fatphobia we obfuscate the ways that fatphobia interacts with class, gender, and race. Fatphobia is perpetuated institutionally by things like laws, standard work practices and the War on Obesity. Fatphobia is also interpersonal and built into the way we speak, joke and understand ourselves socially. The way you experience fatphobia is affected by your perceived class standing, gender and race. For instance, the recent Strong4Life public health campaign in Georgia targeted childhood obesity by showcasing images of fat children alongside slogans that have been called "bullying" by critics. But carefully examine the image and text below:
The text reads "It's hard to be a little girl if you're not." The message is certainly brutal, but its complexity is lost when we simply look at it as bullying. This message is being tailored specifically to this child based on her gender. The slogan seems to negate not only the fact that she is "little" but that she is a girl at all. When read more carefully, this message is specifically about leveraging the threat of losing citizenship and recognizability as female and as a child.
The next ad reads "Fat prevention begins at home and in the buffet line."
The phrasing of "fat prevention" invokes the public health language used to discuss viruses in an effort to pathologize fat and cast it as communicable or as something you can catch while doing things like eating at a buffet: an activity that is specifically seen as something that only working class and poor people do.
Some of the campaign images were of children of color/racialized children. When casting conversations about fat brown kids as "bullying," the complexity of race (and the way that brown bodies are constructed) is quickly lost. Public health messaging about fat casts "obesity" as the cause of decreased quality of life/shorter lifespan rather than understanding these things as a product of institutional racism and a permanent under class.
The word "bullying" infantilizes - and consequently belittles - behaviors that can be harmfully life-altering and, at times, actually illegal. Furthermore, the word "bullying" invokes a cultural understanding that it is behavior that happens on the playground, eventually stops and that it strengthens us when we ultimately overcome it. Implicit in this understanding of "bullying" is that violence is a natural and necessary part of life and that it provides societal benefits.
I'm not saying that we should stop anti-bulllying campaigns or that the language of bullying has no place in a discussion about fatphobia. What I am saying is that the analysis cannot stop there. If you choose to use the word "bullying" to describe things that are motivated by institutions (like homophobia, racism, fatphobia), there has to be an attendant understanding of what we lose when we use this word to capture a range of behaviors that have their roots in the deepest parts of our culture's fears around race, gender, class and the non-conforming body.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.