On her recent swing through Africa, between visits with dignitaries and photo-ops in front of the Great Sphinx, First Lady Melania Trump declared that she could be “the most bullied person in the world.”
To experts who study bullying and work to prevent it, the suggestion was absurd.
“It’s really crazy to say that she is being bullied,” said Fred Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and expert on child bullying. For an interaction to meet the threshold of bullying, he explained, it must involve an imbalance of power.
“The big thing here with Melania Trump is she’s the one in power,” Rivara said. “Her husband is the president of the United States. So how can she say that she’s bullied?”
Trump made the comments in an interview with ABC News aired Thursday, in which she promoted her anti-bullying initiative, Be Best. Her focus on the issue has raised eyebrows in light of her husband’s penchant for doling out insults and abuse.
Dressed in colonial-settler chic for her tour through Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and Egypt last week, Trump told ABC’s Tom Llamas that she started the initiative in part because of “what people are saying about me.”
“I could say I’m the most bullied person in the world,” she added, not explaining further what she meant by the comment.
Parry Aftab, the founder of the StopCyberbullying program, acknowledged that Trump has been the target of harsh criticism online. But she argued that this kind of scrutiny should be expected by those in the public eye.
“When you're involved in politics and public life, you need to recognize that you are a target for everybody,” Aftab told The Daily Beast. “People may not like your hair, people may not like your politics, they may not like who you’re married to … But if you enter public life, that’s part of the cost that you pay for that.”
Aftab also worried that the first lady’s comments would divert attention from those who are the most vulnerable to bullying: children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 30 percent of U.S. students in grades 6-12 have experienced bullying, and more than 70 percent have witnessed it.
LGBTQ youth and children with disabilities are especially vulnerable to bullying, particularly online. A third of all lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are bullied at school, and LGB kids are twice as likely to be cyberbullied as their straight peers, according to the Trevor Project.
“I think it belittles kids who are afraid to go to school, who are afraid to turn on Instagram because of [cyberbullying],” Atab said of the first lady’s comments.
“It’s a misuse of a term that shouldn’t be used by someone in power,” she added. “And the first lady, like it or not, is someone with a lot of power.”