A Recipe for Body Image Disaster:
Ingredients:1 school-aged child (pre-teen or teen)1 program for mandated BMI measurement in a public setting 1 “fat letter”
Directions: To greatly increase the likelihood of creating body image issues, combine child and school-based BMI measurement. For an even more horrible experience, give the child a “fat letter” to carry home in their backpack at the end of the day.
As part of the school health programs in some states, schools are taking BMI (body mass index) measurements of their students. Based on the results, the school then sends home letters, often referred to as “fat letters,” to alert parents when their child qualifies as overweight or obese.
Seriously, somebody thought this was a good idea??
When implemented appropriately, the national campaign against obesity and all its health complications is probably a positive move toward a healthier population. But, we need to remember that not everyone who receives the campaign’s messages is actually in the target population. In fact, some of the messages can affect some of the people who hear them in a very harmful way.
A child who is predisposed to body image concerns or low self-esteem in general is probably not going to respond well to a public focus on weight and a mandated BMI measurement in the middle of their school day. I don’t know the protocol for these measurements, but the possibility that the students wait in line and measurements are taken in front of all the other girls or boys is horrifying. I also don’t know the protocol for distributing the notorious letters. I assume that there is no loudspeaker announcement such as, “Will the following students please report to the nurse’s office to pick up their letters,” but I have no doubt that the students all know what’s going on and can pretty much figure out who among them may be getting letters sent home.
Some schools do a wonderful job addressing nutrition and eating disorders in health class and, unfortunately, some do not. When they’re not addressed in an accurate and empathetic way, these issues become surrounded with misinformation and stigmatization. Instead of being encouraged to talk to someone if they’re struggling, students are silenced and ashamed. The “fat letter” program opens the door to a whole new level of problems. Teens and pre-teens, who are all progressing through their physical development at different paces, are especially vulnerable to negative comments from peers. This is not a time when publicly categorizing children based on body and weight issues is a good idea, since it’s likely to cause significant collateral damage.
READ MORE: Body Shaming (at Any Size) Is Never OK
Education about obesity and BMI can be very helpful in encouraging healthy behavior in children when done appropriately. But the setting and presentation for this intervention needs to be carefully considered, and children who may be vulnerable to body image issues and eating disorders need to be protected from unintentional harmful fallout. A well-intentioned but poorly wrought public health program can inflict serious self-esteem damage. And this pain from early in life can plague a person well into adulthood, potentially doing more harm than good.Visit BluebirdPages.com for more stories, advice and information to help you feel better in your life, in your relationships and in your own skin, from our Self-Image Expert, Heather Quinlan. Topics include relationships, sadness, food, weight, body-image, stress, work, self-esteem, trauma and self-care.