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Let's Not Weigh the Children

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

By Holly Shimabukuro

Trigger warning: This article discusses eating disorders

The rigid Body Mass Index chart creates harmful, unnecessary pressures on today’s students. Graphic by Brittany England.

“You don’t have to look at the scale, you can just talk to me while you get weighed.” It’s hard to imagine that “Weigh Day” sat well with the other students in my gym class, nor did calculating our Body Mass Indexes with table-mates in health class the following year. I applaud my gym teacher for trying to make the circumstance less unpleasant, although these are not situations students should have to find themselves in.

While stepping on a scale may be a better alternative to pinching fat, it is not any school’s place to weigh their students.

Across the US, as many as 14 states weigh public school students to collect Body Mass Index (BMI) data. The Center for Disease Control recommends that this data should be tracked on the basis of identifying “the percentage of students in the school or school district who are underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese,” and monitoring the effectiveness of student health initiatives.

The BMI calculation has limitations that make this measure an invalid method of determining one’s fitness, and the practice of weighing students can have detrimental effects on mental health, resulting in the need to end the policy.

In order to calculate one’s BMI, only two factors are considered: height and weight. BMI fails to consider bone or muscle density, both of which have more mass than fat. As a result, those with strong bones and defined muscles would more likely be considered overweight or obese, despite their healthy nature. Consequently, the logic regarding the meaning of each BMI category is flawed. While being obese in real life usually does equate to a high BMI, a high BMI does not always equate to being obese in real life. In this case, two events that should be interchangeable are not.

Standard BMI chart by Vertex42.

Regarding the data produced, the categories representing each body type are very distinct, leaving no room for gray areas despite the overlap of bordering scores. The categories are underweight, overweight, obese, or normal. Yes, “normal” is a body type for this measure.

Body types are not as black and white as these categories make them out to be. By labeling with this method, impressionable students are placed in classifications that could easily be inaccurate of their true figure by valuing a formula over an actual physique. These labels create a physical hierarchy, teaching students that there is a “normal” body type. No body type is “ideal” or “suboptimal,” but naming and assigning categories anything but “normal” reinforce the conception that these exist.

The CDC has safeguards, or recommendations, for schools to “ensure respect for student privacy and confidentiality, protect students from potential harm, and increase the likelihood that the program will have a positive impact on promoting a healthy weight.” While most are common sense, like using accurate equipment and trained staff, one of the safeguards is to “ensure that the setting for data collection is private.” In school, nothing is ever “private.” Students will be pressured into sharing their weights, or the calculations of BMIs might be assigned as group activities, as it was in my public middle school. Regardless of efforts to make categorizations private, bullying is bound to occur in the form of fat and thin shaming, neither of which should be endured by any student.

Forcing students to focus on their weight and labeling students anything but “normal” creates negative body perceptions at an unnecessarily young age that can easily evolve into eating disorders sparked by one’s environment. Environmental factors can include peer pressure, activities fixated on weight, or bullying because of one’s weight-all elements that stem as a result of weighing students in school.

In the US, about 3% of teens are diagnosed with eating disorders, with eating disorders having the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. The peak range of onset for anorexia nervosa is from ages 14-18, the exact range of a high schooler. While girls are more likely to have higher BMIs as a result of breast formation leading to increased “overweight” and “obese” categorizations, girls are also more likely to be affected by eating disorders.

Weighing students will and does lead to bullying and self-consciousness. Labeling students “underweight,” “overweight,” or “obese” will lead to bullying and self-consciousness. Bullying and self-consciousness can lead to eating disorders. At this time of vulnerability, schools should not act as perpetrators that continue these patterns.

Recently, the conversation to weigh students reopened after the National Obesity Forum of the UK called to track quarantine weight gain multiple times a year, causing large backlash from Twitter. In a comment responding to the conversation, The Good Place actress and outspoken activist Jameela Jamil shared her experience with school weigh-ins that many empathize with:

“Being weighed at school was truly the minute my eating disorder started at 12. I can trace it back to that exact day. Understand that size is not an indicator of health and just teach children about nutrition, make exercise fun and stop serving them dogsh*t at lunch.”

Schools can provide a safe space to encourage a healthy lifestyle without weighing kids, noting a few colorful examples by Ms. Jamil. During the time of a pandemic and quarantine, schools should be focusing on their students’ mental health. By weighing students repeatedly, healthy weight gain appears to be a failure and unhealthy weight loss appears to be incentivized. When the end goal is to promote healthy living, it is best to leave the scale out of the process.

Written by writer Holly Shimabukuro

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