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Health and weight (young people)

School, education and weight

Experiences of school varied for the young people we met but having serious weight problems could make school difficult, particularly if they were being bullied. Some people we spoke to went on to further training or university after school, and were enjoying life and feeling optimistic about the future.
 

Gemma was badly bullied at school but knew it was important to keep on top of her work.

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Couldn’t go to my lessons when I got in about year 9, I couldn’t go to the dining hall or anything like that because I’d always get hit or I had stuff thrown at me, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t go to any of my lessons, I had to stay in this one little room where there was just like one teacher I had to be taken out with, I had to wait for the teacher and then I could go out. I weren’t allowed to go out for breaks. I couldn’t have toilet breaks, I had to wait till the end of the day. Got to the last four month with High School and I had to be home schooled because bullying got that bad. I had an all-time low and I really did wish I were gone, basically because it, I couldn’t really talk to my Mum and Dad because I felt like they’d just think I were lying and then when it all came out I just, it felt a lot better, but in a way it didn’t because then everybody knew that they’d got best of me.
 
I always made sure I were on top of my work.Always. I’d say if I were off school, even if I weren’t there, I’d make sure I had all my work given to me. If I needed help I’d go and see the teacher, and college, my assignments were always handed in beforehand, done to the best I could do, I’d never let anything get the best of me with that because otherwise what’s the point in going? So I made sure that were all up to date, and even if it weren’t perfect it’s still done.
 

Losing weight helped Duncan'’s concentration and confidence in school.

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I’m not really sure, it’s one of those things that I kind of explain in my head and I can sort of explain in my head but I can’t explain out loud. It’s just because there are so many emotions that you go through sort of from beginning to end and when you feel down you put on weight, and when you feel pretty good with yourself when you’ve reached the first sort of half stone, or whatever, so it’s all sort of… well it’s a general sort of increase of happiness sort of thing. It’s just, well it’s a general increase of good things, is still probably the best way I could describe it, you know, everything seems to turn out good.
 
Everything?
 
Yes pretty much it’s sort of, you know, there’s all the health, the social, the psychology, the sort of mind things that sort of go in, sort of all those reasons, sort of are cumulative and, you know, if you think, well if people think that they need to lose weight then, you know, it’s only a good thing. I mean there aren’t any bad things at all that I can think of about losing weight. I mean, well, apart from sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle but you know apart from that thing, there’s nothing wrong at all with it.
 
And you said there were social aspects?
 
Yes that sort of came with the increase in confidence. As my confidence increased I sort of spoke to more people, I was more outgoing and I made more friends, became sort of, I wouldn’t say popular but I was more popular, well sort of you know. I speak to more people than I would do if I was heavier still and I think I interact with more people now than I’ve ever done.
 
So, I don’t know, it sort of got me a lot more confidence to speak my opinion when the time comes. It’s also helped in school as I tend to ask more questions now as I feel more confident about speaking up in front of others, so sort of. And it’s helped my concentration. That I've noticed.
 
Really?
 
Yes, it’s sort of, because I’m not as heavy, so I’m not as tired all the time so I’m more awake, therefore I concentrating more in lessons.
 
So has it affected your school work, would you say?
 
I hope, yes, I think so, I mean, I’ve been, well I was told by my, I think it was my physics teacher the other week, that he’s noticed quite a bit of improvement over the last year or so. So that was another thing to help my confidence and, so it just sort of comes together really.
 

Working and doing well at school made Sami determined to achieve more.

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In all of my schools, at my second school there was quite a ‘model’ image - everyone wanted to be you know the catwalk model - and they were so skinny, they were so tall, they always wore high heels to school even though, you weren’t allowed to. They were always plastered with make-up, and I was at that stage where I really couldn’t be bothered. I was just getting picked on so much, I thought what’s the point in me wearing make-up and high heels, because nobody’s gonna look at me any different? So I was just there in my normal men’s shoes (because I’ve got huge feet) and no make-up on, hair tied into a plait, and then just really studious, and you know - a bit of a loner to be honest. But you know, working made me happy and that’s what I think they didn’t understand, and that’s why I got picked on even more.
 
So you were quite different in lots of ways in a sense?
 
Yeah totally. I think without you know bigging myself up, I was one of the most intelligent people in the year, but that probably is because I put the most effort in.
 
Because I was not interested in boys, I was not interested in make-up, or high heels, or trying to get into clubs when we’re only 15 years old. I was just... I had a completely different outlook on life. I just wanted to get somewhere with my life and prove everyone wrong that, you know, a fat person can actually do something good to the world. Like my motto, ever since I changed and ever since I’ve been to counselling was, “I will change this world, I will do something that is gonna make me be remembered.”
Some young people got through school by ignoring bullies and concentrating on their work. Others felt helpless and threatened most of the time they were there. A few young people missed a lot of school which affected their school results. One girl said she was so focused on ‘the anorexia side of things’ she stopped going to school. 
 

Naz worked hard in some lessons and ignored the nasty comments.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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Naz' And then the thing was I got into education and stuff, and I got on with some of my subjects. I was really good in them and because I used to pay more attention than them I used to be known as teacher’s pet again, or the boffin of the class. And they used to just annoy me, because I used to pay more attention to them.
 
And then there was another girl that was fat as well, but they never used to say anything to her, because they knew she’d actually go to the head teacher and do that, but with me, they knew I would just stay there quiet and just take it in or whatever, forget it, ignore it. So I never used to just care about what they used to say, it was in one ear, out the other one then. Because I used to think I’m at school for education not to get teased, so just pay attention to the education that’s it.
 

Olivia's anorexia stopped her going to school and cut her off from her friends.

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I guess that’s just all part of the illness. I think because it just gains such a control over you and you just don’t really. Sometimes you just can’t do anything about it, it just. I find it hard to explain. But it’s like something else just totally takes over and no matter what you do or how much you want to be well it just keeps dragging you back.
 
 I guess it was like a comfort thing. Kind of when the world gets a bit scary you just kind of go back into your little shell. And I guess it kind of stops you worrying about all the other things like college and that kind of thing.
 
How does it do that? Can you explain that part of it?
 
I guess because when you’re in the illness you’re focusing on, you’re focusing on your food and your weight and just yourself and to focus on to count calories and focus on what you’re going to eat tomorrow. How you’re going to get out of going out to a, that restaurant next week or something. To focus on that is like a distraction from, from everything else that is going on. So say I have like a college exam tomorrow or something which I don’t but if I did and it’s something I’m worrying about I’d just suddenly focus on how much I was eating and it seems a lot easier to focus on that than to focus on the actual problem.
 
Let me just go back again a little bit. I mean you said that one of the things that it affected was your GCSEs?
 
Yeah, I just stopped going to school and I took a lot of time off which also caused me to detach myself from my friends as well. So I was just alone a lot of the time.
 
Did you feel like an outsider because you’d been away from school and sort of got cut off from people a bit or did, did you feel like that anyway?
 
I felt that anyway but with the anorexia I guess I just stopped thinking about school and friends anyway. I was just so focused on, on the anorexia side of things like the eating and kind of exercising as well and I just stopped caring about anything else. 
Certain lessons at school, like PE/gymnastics, made many feel extremely self-conscious about their weight. They hated having to get changed in front of their friends and dreaded activities like rope climbing. 
 

Izzy gets changed in the toilets because she doesn'’t want people to look at her.

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Like you feel really weird around people and you daren’t like exercise around them and you just daren’t do things around them because you feel really bad around them because they’re all like really small and you’re like big and then like in PE, I daren’t get changed in front of anybody. So I go into the toilets and get changed because I feel really weird with everybody looking at me when I’m getting changed. And then they’re all like really thin and they can have their belly button pierced but, I would like to have it done but I wouldn’t, if you know what I mean.
 
Yes and is there anyone else at school that does those sort of things, you know, going and getting changed in the toilets?
 
Not really no. It’s just like when it’s yes that’s the only time anybody else really goes into the toilet.
 
Right. But you do PE at school?
 
Yeah.
 
And do you mind, you don’t mind doing PE or?
 
I don’t mind doing PE as long as I’m covered up.
 
So what kind of things do you have to wear for PE?
 
We like have a T-shirt, it’s a quite a thin T-shirt. And you’re supposed to wear shorts but when it’s really cold weather like this we get to wear tracksuit bottoms and a coat, and I normally wear the tracksuit bottoms and a coat.
 
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Emily 'forgets' her gym kit deliberately to avoid PE lessons.

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Well you see I used to never like PE so what I’d do I’d pretend like I’d injured myself so I could sit out because I really didn’t like it, because I’d do summat and then there’d be people who were just fine and I’d be like there out of breath and, so I didn’t, I never used to like it, so I used to forget my kit, I used to sit out and stuff like that because I didn’t like it.
 
Right, did you ever used to get a note from your Mum or anything like that sort of?
 
No, I’d just like, I’d like do PE for like ten minutes, pretend I fell over and hurt my ankle or something like that and, then I’d just like sit out for the rest of the lesson, and not do ought, and, and I never used to like getting changed either. I used to have to get changed in the toilet. Because I never used to like getting changed in front of people either so, yeah it did cause me a bit of problems.
 
Why didn’t you want to change in front of other people?
 
Well because I knew the way I looked, so, I’d either get changed in the toilets or I’d get changed in like these shower cubicles we have, or I’d get changed and cover myself up as I’m getting changed. But it’s because I just didn’t like the way I looked. And I knew, and I thought well I didn’t know, I thought people would make fun of me. 
 
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Holly didn’t join in PE lessons in case she made a fool of herself.

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And so was your size ever an issue when you were at school?
 
When I was still in primary school it was a case because you know, in PE lessons people wouldn’t really want to be stuck with me because they thought ‘Because she’s bigger she’s not going to want to go and run and jump all over these ropes and various apparatus things’. And because they were thinking that obviously I wouldn’t want to do it, because I knew they would be thinking that and then I made a fool of myself by doing it, so I just didn’t.
 
But when I was in secondary school, I didn’t go to any PE lessons at all. I always found some kind of excuse not to go. Even if it was a case of deliberately getting myself into trouble so I didn’t have to attend the lesson, which I did a couple of times, and yeah, it wasn’t the best way to go about it I don’t think.
One girl who had lived in South Africa and the UK said that every student at her school in S. Africa had the chance to be in a school team and get involved in school sports, whereas in the UK no one seemed that interested.

Sometimes the teacher would try to help by offering extra encouragement but this could attract negative attention and comments. Some teachers did not help at all and would not tackle the bullies.
Parents knew that their children disliked PE, cross-country running and swimming lessons. Some suggested ways that the school curriculum could be changed which might help their children. They wanted their children to be taught about weight and health as a standard part of the curriculum. 
 
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Charles feels it helps his son to be doing PE with the sixth form in a controlled environment.

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Age at interview: 44
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One of the things we didn’t talk about was how your son, what PE lessons are like for him?
 
PE lessons are a struggle. For obvious reasons, I there are various occasions when notes are asked for, for not having to go. To be fair, the school that my son attends now, the senior school, has been absolutely brilliant and they have offered my son the opportunity not to have to partake in PE lessons that he can’t do. But have offered the opportunity of going to the school gym and joining in with the upper sixth form to be part of their A-level PE studies so that he can be in a controlled environment undertaking exercise which they are producing tasks for him to do as part of their education which is, which is brilliant. And it’s not seen as derisory you know, it’s seen as a positive thing both for the A-level students and my son. So they’ve been absolutely great.
 
But it does annoy me when you have PE teachers who, and it’s not just my son, but lots of children who are forced to do things which obviously they are physically impossible of undertaking without a huge embarrassment to them or pain to them. And I just see no point in making someone do something which they are extremely uncomfortable with when there must be lots of other activities they could do which would be of benefit to them rather than turning people against them and coming up with notes that they don’t have to attend PE because they’ve got sick for the day or whatever. And it just seems well, it’s obviously just too much trouble for the school because it means the teacher has to do something but the school that my son attends has been very good. But, I think that’s probably a rarity rather than the norm.
 
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Sara hopes that as children become more aware of the environment they will get healthier.

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I just briefly said oh because we have the garden, we grow a lot of veg. I think that’s one thing that is coming up in schools a lot more which is tremendous. We have school gardens where children are growing vegetables and they are growing even things like sweet corn and seeing it doesn’t come out of a tin, you know. And to get children involved in that level I think is really, really useful. And it’s a good progression - they’re so ecologically aware now as well in a way that we [never were] - because it never was an issue when we were young. And the whole issue of pesticides and stuff. They are aware and they know about it and they know what’s better. So that’s a good thing that is happening, and hopefully will slowly feed through for the future generations. 

Life was much better for most people once they reached the sixth form or had gone to university. They felt accepted for who they were rather than being judged on the basis of looks and size.
 

Vicki’ has made more friends at college than at school. She says people there care more about friendship than how people look.

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And then I went from there to [name] College and I’ve had no problems at all - like being overweight at college. I think it’s because I’m such an overpowering person that my personality just completely like...if people often say to me you know when, like you could tell when I’m around or something because it’s just like noisy and there’s always something happening, and I think people and people at this age now have just got to the point where they can see past weight for friendship and like see past weight, someone looks for a friendship, and like I’ve got a lot of good friends at [name] and I think that if I ever had any trouble with any of them about being overweight, like they’d stick up, like they stick up for me. And there’s a lot of overweight people as well who are friends at the college now, and I don’t really go out and about with them because they’re mainly boys, and they just play at X-box whatever, it’s like, “Are you coming out today?” “No, we’re playing X-box.”
 
See also Friends, relationships and weight.

Last reviewed July 2017.

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