The blurring line between promoting student health and ‘body shaming’

by Brett Henebery20 Apr 2015

Health experts recently called on schools and parents to take a more pro-active role in the long-term health of Australia's teenagers after a survey found a quarter of the country's adolescents were overweight or obese.
 
However, research shows that such a push has the potential to become markedly complicated, pouring lighter fluid on an already fiery debate between health advocates and anti-body shaming groups.
 
A study cited by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) revealed that by age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their body image.
 
As many as 40% to 60% of girls aged 6-12 express concerns about their weight or becoming too fat – an anxiety that can endure throughout an individual's life. 
 
While schools and their communities continue to encourage students to lead a healthier lifestyle, the evidence shows it is not working. Could it be that such attempts to combat obesity are in fact increasing the stigmas associated with it?
 
Teenage obesity has increased from 71% in 2010 to 77% in 2013, according to the report by the Cancer Council and the National Heart Foundation.
 
In an effort to counter this, some schools in the U.S have taken to measuring students’ Body Mass Index, sending concerned emails to students and mailing “fat letters” home to parents.
 
As a result, some of them have been accused of ‘body shaming’ overweight students.
 
Accusations of body shaming were recently dealt out to Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College, which distributed emails to students encouraging them to commence weight-loss programs because they were overweight.
 
When one of the school’s students, Rudrani Sarma, received an email inviting her to a ‘weight loss success" program for students with ‘elevated BMI's,’ she demanded to know why.

"Initially, I was pretty horrified. I've dealt with an eating disorder for many years and I didn't know how I could receive something like this from the same health centre that treated me," Sarma told CBS.

Schools in 19 U.S states have been sending “fat letters” home to parents about their child’s weight – specifically their Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI data is being collected by schools as part of a campaign to encourage a healthier lifestyle for students.
 
The above cases show that great care must be taken to avoid the long-term negative impact that such messaging can have on young people. As Peggy Orenstein from the New York Times puts it:
 
“Telling girls to ‘cover up’ just as puberty hits teaches them that their bodies are inappropriate, dangerous, violable, subject to constant scrutiny and judgment, including by the adults they trust.

“Nor does it help them understand the culture’s role in their wardrobe choices.”
 
 
HAVE YOUR SAY: Are schools being too tough on overweight students?
 
 

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