The eating disorder trigger you’ve never heard of before.
If you’ve ever felt like you’re a little more obsessed with your weight than your friends—counting every single calorie, fervently researching the latest diet trends, and agonizing over every ounce—something surprising might be to blame.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, people who have been bullied—and those who did the bullying—are more likely to be obsessed with weight loss than those who said they never encountered these problems.
Researchers from the University of Warwick screened a group of nearly 2,800 high school students in the U.K. for bullying behaviors and found that about 800 adolescents were involved—either as the bullies, the victims, or both.
Through a series of questionnaires, the students were asked about their thoughts and behaviors around eating and exercise, self-esteem, body image, and emotional wellbeing.
They found that both the targets and the bullies themselves were more likely to be obsessed with losing weight.
Over half of bullying victims showed an “extreme preoccupation” with weight loss.
“The food obsession is never about the food,” says Danielle Shelov, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in eating issues. “In this instance it’s about control,” she says.
Shelov says that the reason weight obsession can be especially prevalent in those who are bullied or are bullies is because they can exercise control over those eating and dieting habits.
And that obsession can lead to eating disorders and weight issues down the road.
Shelov says most victims of bullying just want to fit in—so when they’re targeted for things like body image, it’s easy to make the association that if they lose weight, the bullying will stop.
And unfortunately, these youthful lessons tend to stick with us.
Given the prevalence of online bullying (who hasn’t gotten a snarky comment on social media?) the findings suggest that it’s more important than ever to tune out the haters.
“Victims need to be reminded that bullies bully to make themselves feel better,” Shelov says.
“Once victims see that the body issue is only one of many areas the bully uses to control people, they will start to see it as a tactic instead of being so focused on what the bullies are criticizing them for.” In other words, it’s not you, it’s them.