The Student Body: One Young Filmmaker’s Activism Against ‘Fat Letters’

The Student Body
A documentary that explores the controversial issue of government mandated BMI testing of students and the “fat letters” that follow.

By Sayantani DasGupta

Across the country, children are being put on scales in school. They’re lining up in gym class to have their height and weight measured, their BMIs calculated. And if they miss certain numerical cutoffs, letters are being sent home (sometimes via the students—handed out in homeroom, or tucked into report card envelopes) chastising parents, and ultimately, shaming students.

As a pediatrician, parent, and activist, I see no real positive outcomes to this sort of individual shaming and blaming around weight and body image. Although weight, eating, and exercise may be appropriate topics for young people to discuss privately with their physicians, I see school ‘weigh-ins’ as part and parcel of an individual-focused toxic body culture that is an invitation to schoolyard bullying and plummeting self-esteem. (After all, we’re not shaming and blaming the food industry for creating food deserts or using GMO’s, are we?) Fat shaming is already such an active part of our culture, do we need to fan the flames of that oppressive fire?

There is, in fact, much contention as to whether BMI is an accurate measure, and has any consistent correlation to health outcomes.  As I have written before on Adios, Barbie, rather than encouraging health, the practice of what’s now being called “fat letters” opens young people up to ridicule by peers, bullying, low self-esteem, and disordered eating, while providing one more institutional voice telling them they aren’t ‘normal’ or ‘good/attractive/worthy enough.’

Unfortunately, those legislators and public health officials supporting such practices don’t also recognize how perfectly our social furor about ‘the childhood obesity epidemic’ dovetails with messages to young people in the media about the parameters of attractiveness. Weight becomes correlated then to appearance, not health; and in the era of high-stakes testing, BMI is becoming yet another number that sets up young people for failure.

But luckily, some families and communities do see how this move to supposedly improve children’s health may actually be deeply unhealthy. After concerns voiced by parents, Massachusetts was the first state to last year to eliminate the practice of sending home letters on student weight. Parents and activists in other states from New York to California are trying to follow Massachusetts’ footsteps.

Bailey Webber
Bailey Webber filming “The Student Body”

One student in Ohio named Bailey Webber has done more than that. What started out as a summer project with her documentary filmmaker father Michael Webber (director of the award winning The Elephant in the Living Room) has now turned into a two years plus odyssey into feature length documentary filmmaking. Bailey grew interested in her school’s practice of sending out ‘fat letters’ when she heard the story of a local sixth grade girl with a medical condition that caused her weight to fluctuate. This young woman went before the school board to tell them how horrible the letter about her weight made her feel—how different, embarrassed, depressed. Although many of the school board officials agreed the letters were a bad idea—one official even breaking down in tears during the student’s testimony—they said that their hands were tied by state legislation.

In interviews with students, parents, school board officials, and even lawmakers, Bailey has found few who agreed with the practice of sending out ‘fat letters.’ Yet, as one legislator revealed to Bailey, it was hard to vote against a bill that encouraged “healthy choices” for “healthy kids.” Who wants to be seen as opposing healthy kids?

In Bailey’s words, “They all have good intentions, but clearly this isn’t a good solution.”

In the tradition of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me or Chris Bell’s Bigger, Faster, Stronger, The Student Body tells the story of Bailey’s quest to find answers, and in the process, discover her own voice, her ability to challenge authority, and what film can do to change hearts and minds.

Bailey’s film is almost done, but she is asking for support to help finish shooting and editing. She and her father, who is not only mentoring her in the filmmaking process, but now also producing The Student Body, envision finishing production and postproduction this year so that the film can be released between November of 2014 and February of 2015.

What can the Adios, Barbie community do to help? Watch and contribute to Bailey’s Kickstarter video, tweet, FB or otherwise spread the social media buzz. And importantly, learn about your state’s practices of measuring BMIs in schools and whether ‘fat letters’ are sent home to students.

In the tradition of eighth grader Julia Bluhm who, along with the Spark Movement, petitioned Seventeen Magazine to stop photoshopping models, Bailey Webber is a young health activist with a mission.

“I don’t want to just tell a story, but make a difference,” says Bailey. “My dad has definitely been my biggest role model. I saw his documentary changing people’s minds and even changing laws. I was like, you can do this? I want to do this.”

Watch her Kickstarter video here and let’s help Bailey make this important documentary a reality:

Related Content: 

Body of Lies: Debunking the BMI

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

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