In what may be the first lawsuit of its kind, a mom is suing the Pittsburgh Public Schools for failing to stop the bullying she says caused her daughter's anorexia.
The mother says three boys began calling her daughter (identified in the suit by the initials B.G.) "fat" in sixth grade, and that two more boys joined in the daily bullying the next year. Her lawyer Edward A. Olds elaborates:
The offensive comments explicitly and implicitly conveyed the message that B.G. was unattractive and overweight.The comments were sexual in nature or conveyed sexual stereotyping.
B.G.'s mom says a guidance counselor did nothing when told about the bullying, and that school officials began harassing her when she tried to homeschool her daughter. She also says that the boys' actions triggered the anorexia that landed her daughter in an inpatient program in February 2008, at a "dangerously low" weight.
However, Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, says it's too simplistic to say bullying causes an eating disorder. Rather, she says, "With eating disorders, we say you're born with a gun and life pulls the trigger." Carrie Arnold of ED Bites adds,
[T]he bullying didn't cause this poor girl's anorexia. It might have triggered it, yes, in the sense that the bullying caused her to throw her lunch away, which led to the energy imbalance, which led to anorexia. But it didn't cause her anorexia. Science shows us that genetics form the biggest risk factor for eating disorders, although many environmental factors can play a role in triggering the disorder. This type of bullying is sadly common, and if every case resulted in anorexia, we would have many more cases of eating disorders than we presently do.
The causes of eating disorders are extremely complex, and not fully understood — the question of whether skinny models actually "incite thinness," for instance, is still being debated. But the cause-trigger paradigm that Grefe and Arnold cite seems to be the most common one, and if we accept it, we need to ask how severe a trigger has to be in order to merit a lawsuit. Could an anorexia sufferer sue a magazine? Her parents? Since weight loss itself can be a trigger for anorexia, could someone sue the restaurant where she got food poisoning?
Of course, non-anorexic people sue restaurants for giving them food poisoning, and this brings up an important point: many triggers for eating disorders are bad things anyway. Bullying is a good example. Even if it didn't "cause" B.G.'s anorexia, the school should have put a stop to it. Law professor Bruce Ledewitz says the real issue is that bullying "deprives the victim of an educational opportunity." And Arnold writes, "Schools should refuse to tolerate bullying because it's harmful and wrong, not just because someone developed an eating disorder." So while the lawsuit brought by B.G.'s mom may encourage a simplistic understanding of eating disorders, it might also encourage schools to prevent their students from making each other miserable.