Dear Parent: Your Kid Is Fat -- The Problem With BMI Report Cards

Sending a letter home with a kid who isn't actually fat seems cruel to most people because fat is still positioned as something that it is bad to be. But those letters aren't helping fat kids -- or underweight kids -- either.

Mar 7, 2013 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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I was a chunky baby.

Recently, over on Jez, there was some discussion of Cameron Watson -- a 10-year-old MMA fighter (and, seriously, when I was 10, I was playing with my Barbies, yo, so this kid has got to be intense) who was sent home from school with a letter telling his parents that he's fat.

BMI report cards have become increasingly common over the past ten years or so, but I remember them from being in grade school in rural/suburban Georgia in the 1980s as part of health initiatives. Schools often take on the role of primary care giver for kids, so I've never been surprised by these letters telling parents where their kid falls on the average.

That's not to say I like them. I hate BMI-specific report cards with a pretty powerful passion because the message has changed from general statistical information to targeted BMI information just in case parents don't know their kids are fat. 

The Jez article does fall into the trap of assuring everyone that this kid isn't "obese" -- a word that gets thrown around with ever-decreasing meaning in the common parlance.

(Sidenote: I went out to dinner not too long ago and overheard two women talking about how they'd be obese if they ate any more sushi; it's like "obese" is supposed to be the "kinder, gentler" way to demonize fat bodies.)

The emphasis is on the kid's fitness -- which is not mutually exclusive from fatness.

It's interesting to me that lots and lots of actually fat (and underweight kids, who don't get mentioned in the article at all) kids are receiving these letters but not the corresponding media attention. Part of the outrage on behalf of Cameron is that he's a great example of how the BMI charts break down when you apply them to some bodies. I mean, that's what we get for using the BMI in ways it was never intended to be used. 

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Can you spot me in this picture?

BMI report cards, the "logic" goes, alert parents who might think their kid is at a healthy weight that something is actually "wrong" with their kid's body. This presumes that parents are not actually the people who know the most about their children and their children's health. It sets a chart invented in the first half of the 1800s as a way to look at general trends in populations as a higher authority than parents and that kid's doctor.

Sending a letter home with a kid who isn't actually fat seems cruel to most people because fat is still positioned as something that it is bad to be. But those letters aren't helping fat kids -- or underweight kids -- either.

I don't care if your kid is fat or not -- their BMI is but one factor in their overall health profile. I was a skinny kid until I was a fat kid and, I gotta say, I'm pretty sure dieting as a kid made me a fatter adult than I might otherwise have been.  

Our bodies change throughout our lives, of course. And kids' bodies change the most drastically in the shortest amount of time, as a general rule -- at least when it comes to humans. (We're pretty slow developers compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.) But we seem to want to control every stage of body development, with little regard for actual consequences.

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I'm a fat adult.

Being a fat kid sucks a lot -- not because of anything inherent to fatness but because fat kids are bullied both by peers and parents. I bet being an underweight kid is also no picnic in the damn park. Sending home letters that turn kids into targets is only going to make things worse.