Ask people what they remember most about middle school and it may very well be something to do with having been teased -- or as we now say, bullied. Often, it's the first time they were made painfully aware of their religion, race or lack of athletic prowess. More likely, it had something to do with the way they looked. Or didn't.
A patient told me that she was thinking of calling her 11-year-old son's principal because Jamie was a wreck over being picked on at school. "It's his red hair and fair skin," she said. "The jocks all call him 'carrot top' or 'freckle face.' I'm afraid for his safety." I knew her to be anxious about all things related to her children, so I thought it would be best to meet Jamie to determine if a visit to the principal's office made sense.
Even before talking to Jamie, I knew bullying was epidemic in middle schools and that zero tolerance was being increasingly enforced. But I also knew that bullying was a complicated issue in terms of its definition, intervention and consequences.
How do we distinguish the angst and insecurities felt by most teenagers from the pain resulting from bullying? Does all teasing between kids warrant prohibition, or is there room for some joking and fooling around? When things clearly go too far, who should intervene -- the bullied, bystanders, parents, school administrators, state or federal governments? Finally, what are the consequences when it's reported, or when it isn't? These complex questions aside, what I heard from Jamie was heartbreaking.
He looked younger than his age, a bit shy and reserved, as are most pre-teens when they meet a therapist. But within minutes, he was fighting tears as he described his typical day. As his mom had reported, he was taunted regularly while riding the school bus. It was only a small group, he said, that called him names and tossed his backpack around, but everyone else, including school aides, stood by and watched. He said he could put up with that -- he just ignored them and kept to himself -- but a recent event made things a lot worse. One girl took a photo of him on the bus sitting next to an overweight boy -- who was also often bullied-- and posted it on Facebook with the caption, "Red and Fatty in love." She asked others to 'like' the photo as a sign of approval. By the end of the day, there were 150 'thumbs up,' which to Jamie, signified 150 potential bullies. He didn't want to go back to school.
I told his mom that not only did she need to bring this to the attention of the school administration, but that we had to provide Jamie with tactics to deal with his tormenters. I asked if there was a counselor or teacher he could talk to himself, but Jamie -- like many kids -- said he was afraid of retribution. "I can't tattle," he said, "that'll only make it worse." I also asked if there were any peer groups he could turn to for support and found out that while there were clubs that helped kids with issues around race, religion, sexual preference and even gender identity, there were none for those struggling with their appearance. Jamie said he couldn't even think about relationships and sex since he was too preoccupied by his looks. "Everyone thinks I'm weird and ugly and I just want to be left alone."
Sadly, no advocacy groups exist in schools today for these common victims of bullying -- kids whose physical features veer from the norm. I'm not talking about children with genetic deformities or disfigurement resulting from accidents. Today's bullies seem to know better than to pick on these vulnerable youngsters. I'm referring to the average, everyday awkward teen -- the heavy-set girl who may have a bad case of acne or the short, skinny boy with big ears or buck teeth (and yes, almost anyone with red hair) -- who are easy targets with nowhere to turn.
While the media has focused attention on the dramatic and tragic stories of bullying -- especially those reported by LGBT teens -- the everyday tormented kid suffers under the radar. Desperate to make it stop, some go to great lengths to alter their appearance. Girls start extreme diets, boys try buffing up. Others beg for cosmetic surgery -- rhinoplasty, otoplasty, chin implants, breast reductions and breast enhancements -- anything to fit in. Parents who support these procedures often do so ambivalently, conflicted not only about altering their child's appearance, but about the message it sends to the bullies. Shouldn't we focus on changing bullying behavior, not the physical features of its victims?
Let's not forget that we live in a culture that promotes a narrow standard for attractiveness -- standards that are reinforced by the imagery our kids see on TV, film and online. Digitally altered faces and bodies -- beautiful yet, unrealistic -- become imprinted in their minds as normative. Anyone outside the bell curve is a potential victim of bullying.
While educators are working to make schools safe for all children, isn't it time to broaden those efforts to include those victimized for their divergent physical features? Don't they deserve support as much for their variable sizes and shapes, as they do their race, religion or sexual preference? What about educating kids about 'authentic beauty' versus media-driven distortions that foster unrealistic expectations, body-image problems and low self esteem?
Jamie's principal was proactive in reinforcing the zero tolerance policy at his school. She met with his teachers and held an assembly to discuss bullying with other students. A new aide was placed on the bus, and for a while, the taunting stopped. But Jamie said he still hated how he looked, felt he would never fit in and convinced his mom to home-school him. After too many absences and C's on his report card, she ultimately agreed.
Sadly, Jamie is among a growing number of victims who suffer the long-term impact of being bullied. The voices that taunt them throughout childhood become the very ones they hear in their own heads years later. You'd be surprised how often the cruelties of middle-school come back to haunt us in middle age.
What can be done? As parents, we can teach our children to treat all people with respect and kindness. Such behavior begins right at home. They need to know that norms depend upon context -- varying from one family to another, one culture to another -- and are not based on the air-brushed ideals promoted by the media. Most important, remind your children that human beings everywhere are interesting and memorable because of -- not in spite of -- their unique, real features and encourage them to feel proud of theirs. With these tools, they'll have the confidence to fend off bullies who pick on them (or others) about their appearance -- now and for the rest of their lives.
What advice would you give to a child who is teased about their appearance?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics including parenting, relationships and aging. She is a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.