Well Being

“Fat Letters” Informing Parents Their Kid Is Obese Are Not Solving Childhood Obesity

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 Fat Letters  Informing Parents Their Kid Is Obese Are Not Solving Childhood Obesity fatletterstokids 640x424 jpg

Quite a few parents in North Andover, Massachusetts were surprised when they received letters in the mail informing them their children were “obese.” These letters, which came from the school system, were designed as “part of a broader strategy to combat obesity,” according to the Huffington Post. But do schools really have a right to monitor the weight of their pupils?

Children are given routine BMI screenings in school and letters are sent to parents revealing if a student is underweight, overweight, or at a healthy weight. Apparently, parents can opt their children out of the screenings, or choose to come to the school to watch the screenings themselves. The Massachusetts Department Of Public Health said, in an email to the Huffington Post:

BMI screenings are part of a multi-faceted approach to address the significant public health problem of obesity. Children with a high BMI are more likely to become overweight or obese adults and be at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Helping children maintain a healthy weight may prevent serious illness later in life. The latest BMI report showed that 32.3% of students in Massachusetts were either overweight or obese.

BMI screenings are intended to raise parents’ awareness about this issue. Parents and guardians are given the opportunity to waive their child’s BMI screening at school by submitting a written request. The results of the screening are directly and confidentially communicated to the parents or guardians of each student.

Cam Watson, a fourth grader who wrestles and plays football, was determined to have a BMI that marked him as obese. His parents are angry about the letter and the screening, which they say doesn’t take into consideration muscle mass.

But the issue here is obviously more that just what constitutes a BMI (the measurement of which is almost certainly flawed, by the way). It’s one of schools and school systems becoming, in a way, public health policemen. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I think this kind of approach is borderline fat-shaming (yes, despite the fact that letters were sent out to normal and underweight kids, too) and rife with problems. Where are the tests conducted: in a private room or in sight of other children? Do they even know or understand what they’re being tested for? At what age does the testing begin? This article says it happens at “certain ages,” but doesn’t go into specifics.

On the other hand, maybe a letter like that could be a wake-up call to a busy parent. I certainly don’t think “fat letters” could be one of the main factors in fighting childhood obesity, but for some families and some people, they coud contribute in a positive way. I don’t know. I tend to agree with what Karen Hilyard, a health communication researcher at the University of Georgia, told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution about a 2011 childhood obesity campaign:

“We need to fight obesity, not obese people.”

And North Andover’s “fat letters” seem like they’re a little too close to demonizing parents’ choices and families’ lifestyles for my comfort. Rep. Jim Lyons of Massachusetts also thinks the practice can be damaging to students’ self-esteem, which is why he’s sponsoring a bill, H2024, that seeks to amend the law. Other Massachusetts politicians, like State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives are in agreement. She said:

I think that there are tools that schools can use independently to inform parents about that [childhood obesity] being a public health issue for children without targeting individual children and putting them into these categories, whether they are underweight or overweight.

What do you think about this issue? Are children tested for BMI where you live? Would you let your kid participate in testing of this kind?

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