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The brats with fat for brains

14 June 1998

Laura is a slim teenager but she is being taunted because she was once plump. Now she has gone to the police

by: SANTOSH BEHARIE

LAURA WHITEHEAD is not fat. But the 14-year-old has reported two girls to the police for making cruel jibes about her weight.

Her nine-year nightmare began in Grade 1 when she suffered from a problem which caused her to bloat - and occasionally to lose control of her bladder. In Grade 2 she lost a kidney, which caused her to bloat further.

One of the bullies, who was in Laura's class at the time and now attends the same high school, has teased her ever since, calling her "fatty" or "stinky".

The other girl, a 16-year-old, arrived at the school last year.

Six months ago Laura tried to kill herself, but her sister saved her life.

Now Laura has said: enough. With the help of her mother she has made a complaint to the child protection unit, which is investigating charges of assault and crimen injuria against the girls.

Two years ago the plucky teenager with a shy smile decided that the only way to stop the teasing and to be accepted was to become slim. She would lock herself in her room and dance non-stop for hours. Today she fits comfortably into size eight hipsters and sports a navel ring on her taut stomach.

At her school this week, Laura said her mother had told her not to speak to the press. But her best friend, Paula Weir, 15, said: "Laura's family thought she was going through a teenage thing. They felt she should just try to handle the teasing. They did not realise how seriously Laura had become affected by it."

"But Laura is a withdrawn person by nature who does not communicate easily with people. She had to live with this abuse since her first year in school when she was in the same class as the 14-year-old girl. Laura finally cracked when she attempted suicide six months ago. The doctors advised Laura to take Prozac after that and she still does," Weir said.

Paula said her friend had been miserable during her years at school and had become tired of people being nasty to her.

"Her sister Melissa would drop her at school looking really pretty. She did this so that the other children would see that Laura would grow up to be pretty.

"Although she was never really fat, Laura would starve herself at times.

"Since going to the police, Laura has taken up kickboxing to build her self-confidence and for self-defence.

"She is also a good ballroom dancer," said Paula.

She said that although Laura's problems had started in primary school, they had become worse as she had grown older.

"In senior primary and high school, Laura was constantly tripped from behind as she walked, she had her feet stood on and was even poked with a compass on several occasions.

"She sometimes went home from school with bruises on her body."

In high school the girls added "slut" and "whore" to their taunts, and claimed Laura had been sleeping around.

Paula said: "A few weeks ago the 16-year-old told me that Laura was sleeping with my boyfriend. That's ridiculous because I know Laura has not slept with a guy yet. They even spread rumours that I have AIDS.

"But I am strong. I refused to let them get to me. I always stood up for Laura when I could. But sometimes Laura was picked on in class when I was not around. We are in different classes.

"I remember when Laura's mother eventually went to the school last year and complained to a teacher that Laura was coming home with bruises and pricks," said Paula. "But nothing was done about it."

Just after Laura attempted suicide she began bunking school and was referred to the school psychologist.

"But after the first session Laura went home and burst into tears. She told her mother that her school life was hell and that nobody took her seriously," said Paula.

"That was the first time Laura opened up to her mum and told her everything. Laura told her mother that she refused to go back to school again.

"That was a month ago and only as a last resort did Laura's mum decide to go to the police."

Paula said the police had warned Laura that the taunting might become worse if they laid a complaint.

"Laura believes that hundreds of other pupils go through this kind of harassment every day but are too scared to do anything about it. She said she refused to be a victim any more."

She said her friend wanted to meet President Nelson Mandela to prove to him she was not fat.

"Laura knows how our President feels about the youth of South Africa," said Paula.

"She wants people to know what is going on in our schools."

She said that since going to the police, Laura's school marks had improved dramatically.

Jan du Plessis, the principal of Laura's school, Boksburg High on the East Rand, said although he would have preferred to handle the problem internally, he would be happy if Laura's actions showed other children how much harm they could do.

"Parents are not aware of the immense power of peer groups. Children go to great lengths to belong and fear being ostracised. Parents have to prepare their children for the real world before they start school.

"Our school is keeping its distance in the matter because it is now being investigated by the police," he said.

Standing up to the school bullies

PSYCHOLOGISTS said this week the first signs of bullying which parents should watch out for was their child's refusal to go to school and the absence of a circle of school friends. can talk about the good and bad things they experience.

"If a child is a victim of bullying he or she must remember not to keep quiet about it because bullies thrive on silence," said Connie Valkin, a clinical psychologist.

"Bullies tend to keep away from children who are strong enough to retaliate or to seek help. Parents of victims must help their child look for their own solutions. They should never tell their children they should put up with bullies.

"What Laura Whitehead has done is a very useful exercise because many young children have experienced what she has gone through. But seldom does a harassed child have the voice to do or say anything.

"Victimised children generally don't take the kind of action that Laura has. Some end up dealing with this problem in therapy. Some carry the hurt all their lives."

A psychologist, who did not want to be named, said: "The peer group is the most important socialising agent for an adolescent. Children learn more from their peers than from their parents."


'Always hold your head up high, young lady'

People who were victims of schoolyard bullies spoke out this week in support of laura whitehead. Other victims of bullying spoke this week about their nightmare of being obese school children often driven to violence to protect themselves.

Mike Schutte, 47 - a former South African wrestling and boxing champion who weighed 120kg at the age of 15 - said many boys at school picked on him because he was fat.

"They called me 'fatty' and other names and thought I could not catch them because I was slow.

"But they made a big mistake. When I hit those boys they knew about it and left me alone."

Schutte's advice to Laura is to believe in God and not let bullies get to her.

The founder of the diet company Weigh-Less, Mary Holroyd, 52, weighed 100kg at the age of 20 but now weighs 52kg.

She said her parents played a big role in her life. "They always made me feel I was the best, no matter what. We have to educate people and make them believe that fat people also have feelings.

"Being overweight can make you miserable and mentally and physically ill.

"As a fat person, I was never really happy. I felt inferior and it affected my entire life.

"I was always chubby, but I wasn't aware of it until I was a teenager. Other girls had more boyfriends and better social lives. I competed by drawing attention away from my body. I dyed my hair, wore bright lipstick, developed my personality - and still felt inferior.

"I was called Podgy and it hurt. But I eventually took charge of my destiny and Laura must do the same. Always hold your head up high, young lady," she said.

Reformed Durban fraudster Abdool Akoo, 40, who could not be sent to jail last year because he was too fat to fit in a cell, has some advice for Laura.

she should have done so a long time ago. People don't choose how they are born.

"Laura must remain courageous and gain self-confidence," said Akoo. "I know what being teased can do to one's self esteem."