In some states, school administrators are getting ready to weigh your child to monitor obesity rates and some of those states are going to send you a letter telling you that your child is overweight.
These BMI letters, as they've been called, are a fairly new practice and only 9 states are sending these letters home to parents if their child is heavier than "normal". There was recently a study that reviewed one state's data to see if letters like this were working and--surprise surprise--they aren't. The study, done in Arkansas, found that there was no benefit to the letters (no significant weight change or improved eating habits) but they also found that there was no increase in adverse affects (disordered eating or diet pill consumption) either. So basically, these letters did not have an effect either way. Or did they? More on that later.
So this begs the question: why do this at all? Why are some states going to the trouble? Why are we, and more importantly schools, so concerned with our children being above "normal" weight? The answer: all of this is being done in the name of fighting this so-called "War on Obesity." It's a war to stop the spread of fat across the land and, in many cases, our nation's kids are caught on the front lines.
If we are at "war," then we must be fighting an enemy and in this case we decided we're fighting "obesity." What if YOU are heavy/fat/above normal weight or obese (choose which word fits best for you), then YOU, (and your body) are the enemy and our country is enlisting resources in fighting you and your body. You, or more importantly, your children are being targeted. Whether someone is saying it to them or not, children who are heavy know what their parents, their friends, their teachers and society is saying about them. They are saying, "Your body is not ok and we are ashamed of it." You think they don't hear you whisper about them. Do you really think they don't notice when you make them a "healthier" plate than their brothers and sisters? Even though we're not trying to intentionally make them feel bad, the fact is, simply the act of labeling them could pose a risk for future weight gain.
Now back to the unseen effect these school letters might really be having. There is research article upon research article that describe the negative affects of weight stigma on our children and how these weight loss programs (although well intentioned) are creating some real long-term issues for children. Consider this from the Eating Disorders Coalition:
A December 2012 report of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health examined the association between school-based childhood obesity prevention programs and an increase in eating disorders among children and adolescents. The Poll found that 30% of parents with children aged 6-14 years reported one or more behaviors in their children that could be associated with the development of an eating disorder. These behaviors included inappropriate dieting, excessive worry about fat in foods, being preoccupied with food content or labels, and refusing family meals.
So, what are we supposed to do when it comes to providing a healthy environment for our children when it comes to food, weight and exercise? Here's what I recommend:
1) If your school district does send letters home or weighs your child for statistical purposes, you can opt out of these programs and choose not to participate.
2) Become aware of your own biases when it comes to weight. Examine closely how you really feel about having a heavy child and the habits you may have fallen into without even realizing. Some might be slightly embarrassed, some might overemphasize weight loss, but either way, I hope you will understand that no matter what size your child is, they can be healthy and what they want most from you is love and acceptance.
3) Don't ever put your child on a diet. Never try to restrict what food they eat or hide food in the house. Read Ellyn Satter's book to learn about raising a competent eater.
4) Along those same lines, I do not recommend enrolling your child in extra exercise classes or hiring a trainer. If they are younger, encourage them to play more outside. Do more active things as a family, like going for walks after dinner, going for a bike ride to the store instead of driving. If your child is older, teach your child the joy of movement; that moving their body is a great way to socialize with friends, build self-confidence and enjoy the outdoors. Movement should not be punitive and seen solely as a way burn calories or lose weight.
5) Change how you talk about your own body. Don't use shaming words about yourself. Try to model body positive actions and your child will follow your lead.
I hope these tips help you. Remember, the goal is to raise a child that is proud of their body, knows how to eat for fuel rather than for emotional reasons and most importantly to never, ever, ever want to go on a diet in their life.
I hope you all enjoy your school year!