This Week In Fat Stigma: The Boy Scouts Of America Have Forbidden Fat Kids From Attending Their 2013 Jamboree

Just when you thought the Boy Scouts couldn’t possibly get any more frustratingly unlikable!
Publish date:
July 15, 2013
Discrimination, bmi, fat stigma, fat kids, boy scouts

The Boy Scouts of America have not exactly had the best decade for PR. For eons the organization had a strict no-gay-people policy, much to their detriment when the rest of the world grew more accepting and many of their corporate sponsors started pulling their support over the Scouts’ continuing discriminatory practices.

It’s been interesting to watch, because evidently even if you have the Supreme Court’s backing in being allowed to ban gay folks from your organization (and, ostensibly, trans and gender nonconformist folks as well -- ALSO, in case you didn’t know this, the Scouts ban atheists and agnostics too) that doesn’t necessarily mean you get the public’s permission to do so.

In May of this year, the Scouts’ governing body voted to end their ban on gay scouts, effective January of 2014. They retained the policy against gay scout leaders (“avowed” “homosexuals,” in their words -- which I guess means closeted ones are OK) so this didn't impress a lot of people. Except, of course, for homophobic people, who started yanking their kids out of scouting with a quick vengeance.

Point being, the Boy Scouts have had some problems. So this latest bit of info should not come as a terrific surprise, but apparently the 2013 Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree, taking place in West Virginia this week, has a BMI requirement. Because it seems that the organization is trying to model itself on boys’ most feared middle-school bullies, gamely prowling the halls between classes and ensuring that no boys exhibit the slightest inkling of weak, inathletic, or “girly” behavior.

This year’s jamboree is apparently the Scouts' most physically demanding ever. There’s even going to be rappelling, which is as useful a skill as any young man can learn in today’s world. And there will be loads and loads of walking, as the site has been “deliberately” spread out for the purpose of making the kids march all over creation in the name of good nonfat fun.

And I guess just like the Boy Scouts assume gay folks cannot possibly serve as good leaders and role models for kids, they also assume that all fat people -- or rather, people with a BMI over a certain level -- can’t walk a couple miles up a hill.

This year, 30,000 Scouts ages 12 to 20 and their leaders were required to meet a threshold for body mass index and other health factors before being allowed to participate. Jamboree applicants with a BMI — a measure of body fat determined through height and weight — of 40 or higher were deemed ineligible. Those who fell between 32 and 39.9 faced providing additional health information to Jamboree medical staff.[...]“We required a level of fitness in order to come to the Jamboree that we haven’t required before,” [Dan McCarthy, director of the BSA’s Summit Group] said. “And that has motivated an enormous return in terms of both kids and adults getting serious about improving their health.”

I have no idea what "returns" this could possibly produce, if the only kids allowed to participate are the ones that already comply with BMI cutoffs. It suggests, even unintentionally, that only those kids deserve to be active and have a fun week of rapelling and BMXing. It suggests that all kids over a certain BMI are incapacitated and will only slow the group down -- and that being conscious of the different abilities of different individuals is not something the Boy Scouts value as part of building good character.

Frankly, it creates a universalizing concept of fat kids that is simply inaccurate and more than that, harmful. I was a fat kid who did most of the things that will be happening at this jamboree (except for rappelling, which is sincerely my greatest loss) and they served to build my confidence, both in my physical abilities and in my general sense of self.

I grew up literally looking at every tree and thinking, "I could climb that," and this self-assurance was instrumental in making me a confident adult. Even when I struggled, as all kids who are not professional athletes occasionally do, the experience of pushing onward in spite of difficulty was valuable in ways far beyond its effects on my aerobic health. To be told that I couldn't do these things before I was even allowed to try would have been a massive blow to my burgeoning self-esteem.

We might surmise that the Boy Scouts BMI restriction is in place so that activities don’t need to be tailored to individuals, and yet, given that this gathering includes kids aged 12 to 20 years old, that tailoring is already happening. Indeed, it’s part of the point: “Some of the venue designs fit in with the BSA’s motto of building Scouts’ confidence because they enable the youngsters to choose what fits their skill levels.” Certain Scouts' confidence, anyway.

It’s easy to just shrug this off by saying that the Boy Scouts are a lousy organization, so who cares what they do, but in the the worlds of the kids who participate in scouting, this doesn’t mean much. For the kids themselves, scouting is often a big part of their growth and identity, and so this decision has the potential to do individual damage.

I just keep thinking about the fat scouts being told by their scout leaders that they can’t attend the biggest Boy Scout event of the year exclusively because they are too fat. I’m imagining how those kids must have felt -- knowing that they probably feel pretty crappy about being fat in the first place, considering being a fat kid is often really, really difficult on a social level -- about the realization that their bodies have literally shut them out of Fun Rappelling Camp with their friends.

And how those friends must then think about the fat kids they know, many of whom may very well be able to walk 3 miles up a mountain or climb a rock or ride a raft down a river. Their actual abilities are subsequently less important that what people assume their bodies can do -- and we all know how this can have a negative impact on self-confidence and the willingness to push oneself to try harder and go further, in all areas of life.

Even more frustratingly, there are likely even BMI-compliant kids who struggle with these things, but they still get to go to the big event, evidently for no other reason than their ability to satisfy an arbitrary measurement that is well-known to say little of value about the health and fitness of an individual person.

“We certainly want to get the Scouts outdoors, challenge them and have a healthy lifestyle,” said Gary Hartley, the Summit’s director of community and governmental relations. “We talk about the three C’s as kind of the pillars, and that is cardio, character and citizenship. We have all of those embodied here.”

The inclusion of “cardio” here alongside such stalwart ideas as “character” and “citizenship” is bewildering, the implication being that physical fitness is as necessary to being an overall good person as these other concepts.

One might assume that any Scout or Scout Leader, no matter his size, who wanted to attend this event in the first place would probably feel some degree of certainty that he could participate. Why is that self-knowledge being dismissed in favor of the BMI, a measurement never intended to be applied to individuals and which is famously unhelpful in determining who is fit and who is not?

Nevertheless, it seems the Boy Scouts have chosen to focus on “cardio” over “confidence,” and the kids who suffer will likely be the ones already suffering a deficit of the latter, if not necessarily the former.

Nice work, Boy Scouts of America! I can’t wait to see who you discriminate against next.