With that introduction out of the way, let me back up a second to say that I think you have our children’s very best intentions at heart. I really do. I honestly commend you for the incredible work you do for our youth, often with very few resources.
But speaking of resources, I wish you’d use the limited ones at your disposal to focus on the important mission you have — educating and nurturing our future leaders.
In 19 states, children of higher weights not only had to worry about trying to find back-to-school clothes in larger sizes, but they had to face potentially demoralizing letters sent home to their parents about their weights. As if the standardized academic tests, gym class fitness tests, and, heck, the lunchroom, weren’t stressful enough for our kids, now you’re printing out their BMIs on letterhead and sending it home like a demerit.
Let’s first start with the fact that BMI is flawed. It never has, nor will it ever be, a great measure of an individual’s specific health status. For one, it does not differentiate between the sources or distribution of weight. We know, for example, that body fat around a mid-section tends to be more problematic, but BMI can’t tell you this information. Research tells us too that BMI does not need to necessarily be reduced in order to improve health outcomes. So if it’s not a good measure of illness – or health – why are we so obsessed with it?
There are plenty of kids in our educational system who could benefit from less time in front of their laptops and more time on the playground. But those kids come in all shapes and sizes. If we are so concerned with the health of our children, we could put our resources toward addressing barriers to physical activity — like lack of safety in communities and availability of parks and play spaces. We could provide educational initiatives directed at parents on how to engage children in a healthy and varied approach to eating.
Parents have a lot on their plates – pun totally intended. You may think that sending letters to them telling them their kid is fat is helpful, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not. A letter doesn’t give parents the tools they need to inspire family changes toward health. It feels shaming, and shame leads to inaction, not action.
Finally, your however well-intentioned but misguided attempts to quell this obesity panic may have some unexpected consequences. By age 10, a third of girls and a fifth of boys say their weight is their number one worry. Number one! Not how they are going to get to Jamie’s house after school or even whether their parents are going to stay married, but their own weight. This anxiety about weigh can have dire results. Specifically, huge numbers of children are turning to dieting, which presents a big risk factor for children in developing unhealthy and dangerous eating behaviors, and sometimes eating disorders.
So we know that BMI is a poor indicator or health, all kids need help in creating healthy lifestyles, and a focus on BMI can lead to dangerous eating habits. So can we please rethink our focus here and start building playgrounds and improving the cafeteria fare instead of sending ‘fat letters’ home to vulnerable kids?