An anti-obesity campaign from the New York City Department of Education is sending 850,000 “Fitnessgram” letters home to parents with their schoolchildren’s BMI. The problem is, kids happen to be opening up the mail to find out their school says they are overweight.
The New York Post talked to a third-grader who found out she was in the “overweight” category, based on the BMI calculations for children. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Why did I get this?’” tiny third grader Gwendolyn Williams told the New York Post, “I’m 4-foot-1, and 66 pounds, and I’m like, what?!”
The “fitnessgram” approach is pretty common around the country. Twenty states require schools to screen kids for obesity, and some send reports home with letters if their Body Mass Index (BMI) exceeds a certain level. However, BMI is a tricky measurement of health that requires additional context. Gawker notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which backs the use of BMI, counsels, “To determine whether the child has excess fat, further assessment would be needed. Further assessment might include skinfold thickness measurements.”
Efforts to combat childhood obesity can sometimes veer into fat shaming. For instance, a public health campaign in California photoshopped a girl to make her look overweight. A series of TV ads in Georgia proclaimed that “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.”
These campaigns have little basis in science, which show that shaming tactics tend not to be effective. But they do seriously risk encouraging body image problems at an early age, when eating orders typically emerge. Disordered eating among children under the age of 12 is on the rise.