In North Dakota, one woman is taking the issue of childhood obesity into her own hands. If any of the trick-or-treaters that knock on her door this Halloween are “moderately obese” — at least according to her own standards — she plans to give them a letter explaining why they shouldn’t be eating candy.
Courtesy of Valley News Live, here’s the letter she ultimately wants the kids to deliver to their parents:
In an interview with local radio station Y-94 on Wednesday morning, the woman explained that she’s just trying to help encourage healthier habits. “I just want to send a message to the parents of kids that are really overweight… I think it’s just really irresponsible of parents to send them out looking for free candy just ’cause all the other kids are doing it,” she said.
The letter’s author, who has remained anonymous, has already received significant backlash. Dr. Katie Gordon, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University who studies eating disorders, told Valley News Live that this type of letter could ultimately harm vulnerable kids’ self-esteem. Gordon also pointed out that the woman in question isn’t actually equipped to judge which trick-or-treaters are “moderately overweight.”
“That’s not something that someone can judge — the health of someone — just by looking at them. I think that’s the main thing,” Gordon pointed out. “Even if a child is overweight, they might be very healthy because of what they eat and how they exercise.”
Furthermore, if the letter’s author is actually invested in tackling childhood obesity — which is undoubtedly a big public health concern — she should take a different approach. Fat shaming is incredibly ineffective. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Florida State University College of Medicine found that singling out adults who appear to be overweight actually leads them to gain more weight. “There is robust evidence that internalizing weight-based stereotypes, teasing and stigmatizing experiences are associated with more frequent binge eating,” the researchers pointed out.
Fat shaming can have even more serious effects when it’s directed at children rather than adults. Another recent study on the topic found that when parents talk about weight with their children, those kids are much more likely to develop body issues that lead to disordered eating. That’s particularly concerning because eating disorders tend to start very young, typically before the age of 20. And disordered eating is beginning to display itself at increasingly younger ages, perhaps partly because of the unrealistic body images that are marketed to kids. Parents can help combat these dynamics by focusing on nutrition and healthy eating habits, not weight.
Nonetheless, this approach toward people who are perceived to overweight is incredibly common in the U.S. In fact, some public schools are employing the same type of “fat letters” as this North Dakota woman. Twenty states require schools to screen kids for obesity, and some go a step further by sending them home with letters if their Body Mass Index (BMI) exceeds a certain level — even though not all nutrition experts agree about whether BMI is a good indicator of health. The letters warn that the kids are “at risk,” and have upset some of the parents who have received them.
Just earlier this week, in response to the growing controversy over the issue, Massachusetts’ Public Health Council voted to put a stop to the practice in the state’s schools.
Although the Halloween “fat letter” has created buzz across the country, North Dakota’s Forum points out it’s likely a hoax. The radio show that initially broadcast the interview, Y-94, is known for hoaxes and made national news last year with its fake bit on “Donna the Deer Lady.” The radio station hasn’t yet returned Forum’s request for comment.