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5 Ways Schools Can Support Fat, Disabled, LGBTQ Students

GLSEN National Student Council member Keress WeidnerPhoto by Wunmi Onibudo

I’m currently in high school, and I’ve been fat since I was eight years old. Being fat is really all I can remember. I also have multiple disabilities and identify as both queer and transgender. Like all students, I live at the intersection of multiple identities.

This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I’m sharing ways that schools can support all students, especially those who are fat, disabled and LGBTQ, whose needs are often ignored.

1. Re-educate students about what it means to be fat.

Many people who are overweight have underlying medical issues and mental illnesses that cause them to be overweight. People think we are overweight because we ate wrong or didn’t take care of ourselves properly, and they ignore these underlying issues.

I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is known to cause weight gain. Other medical issues like ovarian cancers, thyroid issues and Cushing’s Syndrome can also cause people to gain weight.

I also suffer from an eating disorder called EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, because it doesn’t match the criteria for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder). This eating disorder means that I sometimes completely refuse to eat and other times eat compulsively. Since I am also hypoglycemic and cannot have my blood sugar low, my refusal to eat can actually make me gain weight.

But in school, we are simply taught that diet and exercise will keep you from being fat and that being fat is inherently bad and unhealthy. This means that being a fat person in health class feels like a constant attack during the entire nutrition unit. We need to re-educate people about what being fat means, and remind folks about underlying medical issues and mental illnesses that are related to weight gain.

2. Intervene in name-calling and bullying of all students, including fat and disabled students.

According to middle and high school students surveyed in GLSEN research, the most common reason students are bullied at school is their body size/appearance.

As a fat person, I have had people tell me they had a problem with my body. Language that harms fat people is commonplace in society and especially at school: “I better watch my diet; I don’t wanna get fat before the summer!” “You’d be so pretty if you’d just lose a little weight!” “Your [disease/symptom] would get better if you just lost some weight!” “That fat [insert censored insult of your choice]!” “You’re not fat; you’re beautiful!”

Imagine being in high school and hearing all of that harmful language.

Luckily, educators and fellow students can intervene whenever they hear this type of name-calling and harassment and make clear that it’s not okay.

3. Make sure your GSA is truly inclusive.

As a fat and disabled person who is also both queer and trans, I seek support from my GSA. Thing is, fat people are often disregarded in any space and are seen as less professional, less whole and less respectable. But your GSA, where LGBTQ students often seek support – and truly all spaces in your school – should be welcoming of all identities, different abilities and all body types.

4. Teach students to love themselves, their bodies and one another.

It’s easy to find articles on childhood obesity, nutrition and fitness regimens for fat children, often as young as eight or nine years old. There is always some article on fat kids getting bullied and how to help them (you guessed it: another diet), but rarely is there an article that teaches young people to love themselves and not to harass their peers, which we could all benefit from.

Even if unintentionally, educators sometimes invite harassment of fat students in their lessons. For example, when educators teach about measurements and conversion formulas, students sometimes will weigh themselves on a scale and shout out the number. But it's easy to make an alternative that avoids the potential for harassment and the anxiety felt by students whose bodies feel on display, and better yet, encourages students to treat their peers with respect.

5. Include positive depictions of fat, disabled and LGBTQ people in the classroom.

I’m a non-binary transgender person, which means that I don’t identify as either male or female. All over the Internet, there are before-and-after photos of transgender men and women, and they tend to be conventionally attractive and thin. Meanwhile, I have never seen an accurate representation of myself.

When non-binary people are depicted at all, they are typically stick-thin figures in ambiguous hairstyles, wearing suits or dress shirts or punk fashion. It’s almost impossible to find a positive depiction of a fat non-binary person.

But teachers can help change this by including people of diverse body sizes, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities/expressions in their curriculum. Seeing people like me depicted positively in class would validate my identities and make me feel more comfortable at school.

All students are worthy of respect, care and validation. This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I challenge students and educators alike to listen to the needs of all students, including those who are fat, disabled and LGBTQ, as well as those who live at the intersection of those identities.

Keress Weidner is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council.