UAE has money to burn: Government conducts study to see if fat kids are teased
Ahmed remembers a school trip to the swimming pool. "I was maybe 13," he said.
"I took off my shirt and this boy from another class slapped me really hard on the stomach and said ‘hey fatty!’ then pointed at my belly and laughed and said ‘Look, it’s still shaking,'" he recalls.
Some other boys laughed but most didn’t and one older boy shouted at the bully to shut up and leave Ahmed alone.
“Any time I think of bullying or bad things in school, I think of that moment now,” he says. “The guy who bullied me is working for the government now. I’m sure he has no memory of it, but I do.”
Ahmed’s story is shared by many overweight and obese children who struggle with bullying in school. The issue was raised recently in a Ministry of Health-sponsored study into obesity in government schools in the UAE.
After weighing the children, researchers from the University of Bahrain conducted interviews and found that nearly half of all overweight or obese teenagers had been teased because of their size. The figures are slightly higher for boys, possibly because teenage boys are more likely to be aggressive towards each other.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” says Ahmed, 33, a Palestinian who grew up in the UAE. “Actually, I think the real figures are higher. If I was asked about bullying in school, I would probably have said that I wasn’t teased. I was very embarrassed and didn’t want to bring attention to myself.”
The researchers, who interviewed 661 students aged 12 to 17, also found that many overweight teenagers have already tried to lose weight by dieting and exercise, but haven’t been successful. Obese teens were twice as likely as those categorised as overweight to have put themselves on a diet or exercise regime. Sixty-eight per cent of obese girls said they had tried some sort of exercise or diet programme, compared to 64 per cent of boys. For teenagers considered simply overweight, the figures were much lower - 36 per cent of girls and 32 per cent of boys.
To add to the stress, there is pressure from home. More than half of all obese teens said their parents had already tried to force them to lose weight.
With the researchers finding weight problems in four out of 10 boys, and three out of 10 girls, that points to a lot of stress, teasing and binge eating among UAE students.
Dubai-based nutritionist Rashi Chowdhary works with a number of adolescents who are struggling to lose weight and says many of them suffer bullying and teasing at school.
In some cases, she sees young people consuming 12 to 20 cans of soft drinks a day.
“There is no point in suddenly rushing a teen into a crash diet. We need to get to the psychological roots of the problem, and that can take some time,” she says.
Some teens, she believes, have become sugar addicts to compensate for their unhappiness.
“That is why, in many cases, we do not advise that parents simply cut out all sugar at once,” she says. “Teens will actually get withdrawal symptoms, you bring down the level of sugar - then you start to examine the emotional roots.”