BMI in Schools: Educating Children in Self-Loathing, Not Health

By Sayantani DasGupta

Image ©Nazareth College
“Weighing In” by Nazareth College

I don’t know how, as a pediatrician, mother, and body politics activist, I missed it all this time. But, I recently learned something that rocked my world in an avalanche of outrage and horror.

I was preparing to give a talk at The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, on a panel called “Ferocious BMI! Women Artists and the Body.”  There I was, before the panel, innocently having a coffee with a dear friend, when I learned something shocking about her child’s otherwise progressive school: that they do yearly BMI (body mass index) measurements on their students.

Let me just clarify. These people are putting their students on scales. In school.

Real life hit me in the face. Was this Brave New World? Big Brother is Watching? I had recently read about CVS measuring their employees’ BMI, a move which, in my mind, puts in jeopardy employees’ right to health privacy, as well as potentially their jobs and health insurance. All it truly accomplishes is discrimination. As the writers as Jezebel put it, “Heads up, Corporate America, punishing employees for being fat won’t make them skinny.”

Here I was, about to go give a talk about how the BMI is not only a problematic and perhaps spurious way to measure health (just check out this recent NYT article about a study which suggests that there is in fact a LOWER risk of death for the overweight), but how the ‘obesity epidemic’ in general has been framed as a ‘moral panic’ – a threat to the very social order. My talk focused on the cultural contexts of such perceived threats: the fact that ‘fat panic’ also reinforces hierarchies of class, race, and sex, and how such threats are used to shame and blame individuals and hold some bodies up as ‘normative’ and others as ‘deviant’, rather than holding systems accountable (like the U.S. food industry for their use of GMOs or the market glut of processed foodstuffs).

And there was my friend, telling me how her child’s public school had not only bought into this mentality, but was using it as a measuring stick to evaluate children – sending home ‘friendly’ notes to families whose children’s numbers weren’t ‘right’ with advice like ‘curb down on those sodas!’ (Never mind if your family didn’t even buy soft drinks!) Even worse, because these measurements were done in school, elementary school children themselves were comparing themselves to one another – whispering about a girl who was 103 pounds, regardless of her height, and learning, oh, so young, to use numbers like weight and BMI as proxies not for health, but for self-worth, popularity, beauty, and desirability.

And my friend’s school is not alone. CNN reports: “According to the National Association of School Boards of Education, about a dozen states require some sort of weight recording and reporting as a means of combating childhood obesity.” While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended, in 2003 mind you, that BMI be tracked regularly, what they did not recommend was that schools do that tracking.

And so, although I may be a voice shouting into the wind, I wanted – no NEEDED – to say something. And say it loud:

There is no excuse — NO EXCUSE – for putting little boys and girls on weight scales in school. Responsible administrators should not be doing it. We educators and parents cannot allow it.

Okay, let’s just put aside, for arguments sake, whether BMI or weight are good proxies for actual health indicators, like eating habits, cholesterol levels, and exercise. Let’s even put aside the problematic and punishing ways that ‘childhood obesity’ is talked about in this country (check out this horrendous Georgia anti-obesity campaign). Let’s not forget there is also an epidemic of eating disorders and low self-esteem among our young people, and a generation of girls and women measuring themselves up to unattainable and unreal images of beauty standards which often use weight as a proxy not for health, but beauty. Putting young people on scales in schools? It’s a mental health and bullying disaster in the making, besides encouraging a widespread culture of size-ist discrimination and body shaming rather than body acceptance.

Whatever his politics otherwise, I must agree with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on this one. When recently critiqued by the former White House physician for being “too obese to run for President,” Christie invited that doctor to come to New Jersey, give him a physical exam, look at his medical history, and then give him one-to-one doctor to patient advice. Otherwise, said Christie, “shut up.”

Individual issues of weight, exercise, and eating are absolutely the concern of pediatricians. They are absolutely the concern of parents. Yet, what narratives of ‘fat panic’ have lead to is a nation of armchair diagnosticians, who use ‘science’ as a cloak for perpetuating cultural notions of normative bodies, and use ‘medicine’ as an excuse for ‘othering’ and bullying.

Individual-centric ‘obesity narratives’ have no place in our schools. Schools should put away their scales and consider what sorts of systems level changes they can make to help all our children, with all their varied bodies, lead more healthy, productive, and happy lives. This might include nutritious and healthy school lunch programs that are also filling! Perhaps an organic garden or two. Instead of creating situations where little girls compare their weights with one another, how about increasing the amount of recess children are given (and not the amount of time they spend cramming for high stakes testing)? Maybe even have their students volunteer in hunger programs in their states? And gee, might we even include body-positive messages in our curricula?

Let’s tip the scales in favor of justice, body acceptance, and systems level change. Let’s do so by getting rid of BMI measurements in schools. Like right now.

Image by Nazareth College via Flickr under a Creative Commons license. 

Related Content:

Body of Lies: Debunking the BMI

If You’re Fat, Your Paycheck Might Not Be

Size Activists Shed Light on Fat Shaming Campaign

6 thoughts on “BMI in Schools: Educating Children in Self-Loathing, Not Health

  1. Thanks for all the comments everyone. @KC – I actually don’t think that a focus on a number (weight) is that useful, perhaps in a doctor’s office where it’s in the context of other health parameters, lifestyle, labs, etc. but certainly not in schools where we should worry about the health of all our children and focus on collective solutions not individual shame and blame (even private shame and blame!), What do you think?

  2. Being weighed at school when I was 10 was the trigger that pushed me into the land of eating disorders- I’m eighteen years old now and tomorrow I’m being admitted to a residential treatment facility. Again. 3 years of treatment, and I’m still sick, my life expectancy is much abridged, I have a whole host of health problems. And then there’s the fact that I have spent the last eight years of my life binging and purging and starving and exercising and weighing and going to the hospital time after time after time, when I could have been so much happier and had a much better life.

    I imagine that if I hadn’t been weighed at school, and found out that I was the second lightest! not the lightest! oh no! that I would have developed an eating disorder eventually anyway. But who knows. It might not have started until much later.

    (P.S. I’m from New Zealand, so it’s not just the US.)

  3. I’m all for teaching children about healthy eating/lifestyles, but why can’t it ever be phrased positively? Surely saying “eat fruit, it tastes great and gives you vitamins’ is more constructive than saying ‘don’t eat cake, you’ll get fat’. And weighing kids in front of each other just fuels bullying. I remember once we did BMI tests in maths in year 9, and I spent the whole time dreading the moment when my ‘horrendous’ weight of 8st 7lb would be announced to the class. (Btw, in that same class, a very slim, athletic boy came out with a BMI of 40- probably due to muscle weighing more than fat- which just shows how unreliable that can be) We need to start teaching kids that being fit and strong and healthy makes them beautiful, regardless of size or weight or shape.

  4. Just throwing this out there. At my school they did this privately, not in front of other kids. Is it fat shaming if it’s just letting kids know what their height, weight and BMI are without spreading it around as public knowledge?

  5. I LOVE this!! – ‘[people] use ‘science’ as a cloak for perpetuating cultural notions of normative bodies, and use ‘medicine’ as an excuse for ‘othering’ and bullying.’

    Beautifully put!

    I would actually like to add this blog be part of curriculum in schools! How different would my life be had I found this blog in high-school or sooner?!

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