Have you all heard the outrage over the latest way our schools are failing, and potentially harming, children? Massachusetts parents were disturbed to receive letters informing them of their children’s body mass index or BMI. Even worse, the letters explained the BMI levels and whether the children would fit into “underweight,” “healthy,” “overweight,” or even “obese” categories. The letters were quickly dubbed “fat letters” and the internet anger machine started decrying the schools for shaming and insulting children.
It’s possible though that this whole issue has been blown a little out of proportion. Or very out of proportion. First of all, there’s a lot of anger surrounding the use of BMI to categorize healthy weight. Most people are aware that BMI is not always an accurate predictor. Mainly, it doesn’t separate fat mass from muscle mass, and can therefore classify muscular individuals as “obese.” There are plenty of legitimate issues with using BMI to diagnose healthfulness.
Of course, there are few other easily measured and accepted parameters that schools could use as an alternative. If we want these health screenings to be the least invasive and complicated available for students, BMI is a pretty easy measure to track and communicate. Is the problem really that schools are measuring BMI, or is it that they’re talking about a student’s weight at all?
More and more, we’re expecting schools to step in and get involved in helping end childhood obesity. We want the school curriculum to include health and nutrition. We want school lunches to be better and gym class to get some respect. Especially in low-income areas, school nurses become a little like family physicians. Schools provide ear and eye screenings. In high school, they even provide contraception to their students. Schools are involved in health matters and pretending that they aren’t is ridiculous.
So why exactly are we freaking out about schools sending home private letters to students’ homes informing their families of a widely-used health metric? They’re communicating the same information that a doctor might during a yearly physical, but many kids simply aren’t getting routine care.
From what’s been reported about the letters, schools aren’t telling parents, “You need to do something about this.” They aren’t saying, “Your child is overweight so you’ve obviously failed as their caretaker.” They aren’t sending the letters only to overweight and obese students. They are simply sending basic medical information home for parents to make sure that they are aware of and thinking about their child’s health and nutrition. And also, if parents don’t want the school collecting or communicating this information, all they have to do is say so. These things aren’t mandatory.
People freaking out over “fat letters” sent to shame students are really exaggerating the situation. They’re letting hyperbole and hysteria overtake logical thinking. This is not a situation where schools are trying to guilt parents or bully kids. The schools are privately communicating information about a child’s health home to their parents. My daughter’s school did this a couple months ago when they informed me that my daughter’s inner ear pressure was slightly off. They weren’t saying it to shame me or insult my daughter. Just like a basic letter home about BMI shouldn’t be misconstrued to feed the internet’s cycle of outrage.