Lilly, a sixth-grade girl in Florida, is the star player on her middle school volleyball team. According to her mother, the girl is 5′ 5″, weighs 124 pounds, and is “all muscle.” So the mother was shocked when the school sent her a letter advising that the girl is “overweight.”
How could such a letter possibly be sent? Because Florida is one of a number of states that has begun sending letters to parents advising them when their child is viewed as overweight and warning of the dangers of childhood obesity. Florida mandates “health screenings” for kids, and then uses a body mass index calculation to determine when a child is overweight. Experts recognize that body mass index statistics are a crude means of determining whether a child is overweight, and in Lilly’s case the measure was made even cruder because she was reported as being two inches shorter than she really is. The so-called “fat letter” was the result.
Childhood obesity is a concern, but sending “fat letters” based on rough measures like the body mass index hardly seems like a prudent way to address the problem. We live in an age of eating disorders and concerns about the messages popular culture sends to girls about their bodies. What does it say when a healthy, active volleyball player gets a letter from a government agency saying she is teetering on the edge of obesity? Why send such personal, stigmatizing letters to kids who are already wrestling with the incredible self-consciousness and self-esteem issues that are an inevitable part of the teenage years?
Moreover, why are schools involved in this process? The last I checked, American public schools were struggling to educate kids and, in some instances, keep order in school buildings. Saddling schools with the job of policing childhood obesity is just giving them another task that distracts from the basic mission of education. And when governmental entities are involved in making broad generalizations about health, mistakes such as the misreporting of Lilly’s height happen, letters that should never get sent are posted by mistake, and the damage is done. I think the weight of individual children should be left to their parents and pediatricians and the children themselves. Government buttinskys should butt out.