In the unlikely event that you attend a public school, are overweight, and had no idea, now you’ll get a note sent home evaluating your BMI and letting your parents know whether or not your weight is “normal” — despite the fact that BMI is a seriously flawed standard, and all the experts seem to agree that this new report card system will put more students at risk for eating disorders.
But who cares about health when we have a war on fat to fight?
Six-year-old Karlind Dunbar barely touched her dinner, but not for time-honored 6-year-old reasons. The pasta was not the wrong shape. She did not have an urgent date with her dolls.
The problem was the letter Karlind discovered, tucked inside her report card, saying that she had a body mass index in the 80th percentile. The first grader did not know what “index” or “percentile” meant, or that children scoring in the 5th through 85th percentiles are considered normal, while those scoring higher are at risk of being or already overweight.
Yet she became convinced that her teachers were chastising her for overeating.
Since the letter arrived, “my 2-year-old eats more than she does,” said Georgeanna Dunbar, Karlind’s mother, who complained to the school and is trying to help her confused child. “She’s afraid she’s going to get in trouble,” Ms. Dunbar said.
It makes sense to take some steps to fight childhood obesity. School lunches should be fresh and healthy, with lots of fruits and veggies (and no, ketchup should not count as a vegetable); soda and candy machines shouldn’t be in schools; gym class should be required and should actually emphasize physical activity; and school districts shouldn’t be signing contracts with Coke or Pepsi to promote and sell their products on school grounds.
But what’s happening is the exact opposite: School lunch programs are under-funded (thanks, conservative values) and schools in general need all the extra money they can get, so they make deals with soda companies. Many schools, especially in urban communities, don’t have fields or large gym spaces or decent athletic equipment. And so instead of taking measured steps to promote healthy eating and behavior, schools come down hard on individual students, shaming them for their BMI and emphasizing numbers instead of health from kindergarden on.
Here, in the rural Southern Tioga School District, the schools distribute the state-mandated reports even as they continue to serve funnel cakes and pizza for breakfast. Some students have physical education for only half the school year, even though 34 percent of kindergartners were overweight or at risk for it, according to 2003-4 reports.
Even health authorities who support distributing students’ scores worry about these inconsistent messages, saying they could result in eating disorders and social stigma, misinterpretation of numbers that experts say are confusing, and a sense of helplessness about high scores.
“It would be the height of irony if we successfully identified overweight kids through B.M.I. screening and notification while continuing to feed them atrocious quality meals and snacks, with limited if any opportunities for phys ed in school,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital Boston.
It is the height of irony. Or at least hypocrisy.
It’s also worth noting that the primary examples in the article are girls — the first-grader who’s afraid to eat, and the size-20 Homecoming queen whose lack of embarassment to wear a bathing suit clearly stuns the reporter.
Boys aren’t any less likely to be overweight than girls, but girls are still many times more likely to have eating disorders (although boys certainly do their share of disordered eating, too). And as Zuzu has covered before, there’s a strong link between the ability to access healthy foods and behaviors and one’s socioeconomic status. Zuzu writes:
These are societal problems, not individual ones. Yet the blame is usually placed not on the businesses that refuse to open in “inner-city” neighborhoods, or the governments that don’t provide sufficient public transportation to these neighborhoods, or the banks that redline these neighborhoods so that new businesses have a hard time opening, or the convenience stores that charge several times more for wilted produce in these neighborhoods than Whole Foods does in more affluent areas, but on the families themselves, or the individuals. Resorting to McDonald’s when McDonald’s is about the only business that will come into your area that sells food is seen as a moral failing, not a hard choice that must be made.
And we hear a lot about “sugary soft drinks” at public schools. Well, we didn’t have soda machines or candy machines accessible to students when I was a kid. Why are they there now? Because school funding has been slashed and corporations swooped in offering a cut of the profits from the soda and candy sales. And what cash-strapped school district could really turn that — or advertising for such products during educational TV programming shown in schools — down? Hell, many school districts, even relatively affluent ones, are canceling recess and cutting gym classes out. Kids don’t seem to have unsupervised play time like they did when I was a kid (get offa my lawn!). Not that I spend much time in the suburbs, but the suburban neighborhoods I’ve seen seem strangely devoid of kids, even when I know they’re there.
Childhood obesity is indeed a problem. But it’s not an individual problem or a family problem. It’s a lack of school funding, a lack of wide-open safe spaces for kids to play, a lack of affordable healthy food, a lack of affordable and accessible recreational activities.
When I was in elementary school, we had annual weigh-ins. I dreaded weigh-in day more than just about any other day of the year. My best friend Adriene was incredibly skinny (at 24 and 5’5″ I don’t think she’s topped 100 pounds yet), but she was the standard by which I judged myself — and spent most of my childhood (and much of my adult life) convinced that I was at best seriously chubby, if not simply fat. I put myself on my first diet when I was 8, something I re-discovered when reading through my childhood journals. I have a vivid memory of 4th grade weigh-ins, where my friend Judy weighed 80 pounds and Adriene’s mom made a comment about how Judy was a “tub.” When I hit 80 pounds a year or two later, I was devasted. I swore I would never hit 100. When I eventually hit that, too, I was all the more convinced that I was disgustingly overweight — and that being overweight meant that I was not only unattractive, but a moral failure in some way. From there, I spent most of my life engaging in restrictive eating behaviors, and volleying back and forth between extremes of “being skinny will make me happy and so therefore I’m only going to consume 800 calories a day” and “this is ridiculous, I’m a feminist and I’m not going to buy into this shit, so I’m going to eat whatever I want, even if that means binging and gaining 10 pounds in a single month” (that’s where I was at last month, and now I’m miserable). Even at 23, I still feel completely out of control when it comes to my weight, and I still go back and forth between a desire to be thin and an ideology which conflicts with that desire. And I’m probably not someone who would be put on the front page of the New York Times as an example of the “fat girl.”
I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had an entire school system backing the idea that my weight/height proportion was a defining aspect of my identity, and should be “reported” to my parents if my body were deviant. I can’t blame public schools and health officials for wanting students to be as healthy as possible, and wanting students to avoid the problems that do come along with childhood obesity. But the bigger problem is healthy eating, and access to healthy foods and physical exercise. I’d be willing to bet that in every school where obesity is considered a major problem, there are other students who appear “healthy” because they’re thin, but are malnourished or are living sedentary lifestyles or are surviving off of diet coke and iceberg lettuce or are prime candidates for osteoperosis later in life. That’s not health, either, even if those people fit more cleanly into the dominant idea of what health looks like.
Social problems require social solutions. Blaming and shaming individuals, and further attacking people for being overweight, isn’t going to accomplish anything.
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