The Q&A: Norma Olvera

In this week's Q&A, we interview Norma Olvera, a professor and health educator in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Houston.

Dr. Norma Olvera is a professor and health educator in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Houston.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Norma Olvera is a professor and health educator in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Houston. She recently released a study about the impact of teasing overweight and obese girls about their weight, acts that sometimes take place in school settings. 

Trib+Edu: Can you explain to me a little bit about your recent study and its findings?

Norma Olvera: What we have done in this specific publication is research focused on the prevention and treatment of obesity, but also on understanding the factors that might influence obesity in Hispanic and African American girls. It’s very clear in the literature that obesity is affecting specifically minority children, compared to the white population … We wanted to understand what are the factors influencing obesity.

We have developed some programs every summer for the past 10 years, in which we bring children who are overweight and obese and try to understand basically what factors are not helping these children or what factors are helping them to make changes in their lifestyle.

Before they come to the program, we ask them a lot of questions in relation to their feelings, in relation to their eating practices and exercise, and also about their experience being bullied, because of their weight … When we started interviewing these girls and asking them questions, what we found out is, even though they are already overweight, even though they already have pressure from the media about being thin, it didn’t affect them that much to engage in what we call dieting or disorder eating, or all those unhealthy ways to lose weight … We started looking at the data and we realized it was the bullying or being teased about your weight that prompted obese or overweight girls to engage in unhealthy weight control practices, that involved binge eating, emotional eating and dieting.

A lot of the bullying that was reported, was reported by people that they know, girls and boys, and adults too, but boys and girls they know and that includes classmates in school and also siblings.

What it means from the perspective of the schools, and also the parents, is that we have to help or educate adults, whether it’s the teachers at the schools or the parents. Some people said, “Well, it’s just teasing” … but those words, being teased about your weight or being told that you’re not very pretty or you smell because you are overweight, or that you are like a whale — those things hurt. It triggers in these girls to start engaging in unhealthy behaviors.

Trib+Edu: What role do schools play in facilitating this behavior? 

Olvera: I think right now there’s a certain level of tolerance that that’s a normal typical behavior of teens. It gives permission to other children in the school, that it is not a big deal. I think the schools recognize that it is problematic, but they don’t think it’s a big deal. I think this data shows that it is a big deal.

It’s triggering girls to feel very uncomfortable. Especially when you have this view in your family; they might be big, and you might be big. You are kind of dissatisfied … but that doesn’t mean I’m going to engage in dieting extremely, or binge eating or taking laxatives or emotional eating. It’s when people start teasing and making fun of me … that I engage in this unhealthy behavior. The same way we don’t tolerate other kinds of bullying, weight should be one of those things that we don’t tolerate.

Trib+Edu: Does bullying impact school performance and how? 

Olvera: What we observe is that some of the children who are bullied a lot, they don’t want to go to school. Some of them went into homeschooling. The other thing we found out through the parents, and also the children, but the parents report the children get sick all the time.

So they miss classes. They get very nervous. Some of them throw up, and they don’t want to go to school. I think it academically affects them because when you are not happy, when you are being teased all the time about the way you look, you would try to avoid being in those circumstances again and again and again. For some children it gets so severe that we observe in our study that children will not go to school, would prefer to stay at home and be provided some kind of schooling at home. 

Other girls, we reported that they are cutting themselves because they didn’t know how to deal with the bullying, and if they tell the teacher, the teacher would tell them “tough it up.”

Trib+Edu: What should be done on a school and classroom level to help reduce this teasing that leads to self-image problems for young girls? 

Olvera: I think it has to be creating programs in which [schools] talk about the different kinds of bullying, but also talk about, among all that, weight and appearance ...  And that when things happen, it’s used as an opportunity to create more of a climate of acceptance, that there are many shapes.

I think we need to start early. When children at a very young age look at differences and see it and make comments about different things, they don’t have yet the negative connotation associated with that. I think if we start early and talk about the different things and the use of words to hurt.

Also, it should be a climate, but it has to come from the leadership. There are schools that are very effective on that, because the leader and the teachers make a commitment that that kind of language will not be accepted.

Trib+Edu: What about the students that are already being bullied? How should teachers help students to cope with this type of bullying?

Olvera: Within the schools, they typically will have either a nurse or some type of school psychologist. But also I think there should be more initiative so the schools are bringing in people to provide workshops and to talk about these issues — not only with the children … For some of our programs we’ve done, we also bring in role models, like big names who have been bullied. Like we had a news anchor who came to the class and talked about how she was African American and being bullied because of the way she looks, and how she deals with that.

It’s almost like three levels. The first level will be to bring awareness of the problem. The second is to create policies within the school that there is zero tolerance for that kind of behavior. The third will be to keep bringing some kind of educational programs or workshops … Ultimately, we are all going to get bullied. There’s bullying in academia. It’s how we handle it … It takes a very strong commitment and a long-term commitment. It’s something that will continue.

Trib+Edu: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Olvera: I think I would just say, I think it’s important that at an early age we teach our children, including in school — it should be part of the curriculum — about having acceptance of other different groups, shapes and forms.