Everyone Needs To Calm Down With The ‘Fat Letters’ Childhood Obesity Outrage

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child obesityHave 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.

(Photo: Margaret M Stewart/Shutterstock)


  1. alice

    February 28, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Living in Boston, I wanted to chuck my remote at the TV when I saw that segment two nights ago. 10 year old, karate wielding, heavy-bag punching, bench pressing, little Massachusetts schoolboy gets his BMI letter at home and it says “overweight” …. so what do the parents do? CONTACT THE MEDIA! :throws remote at tv:

    so shameful. Anyone will a peanut for a brain knows that the Body Mass Index is just a guide, and i would bet that the letter said as much. And moreover: is childhood obesity *not* a problem anymore? Why the outrage that the school decided to send home health letters? And dear god, why does everyone seek out media attention every time they feel slighted???

    paraphrasing from that obnoxious mom: “it’s just wrong, sending home a letter like this, telling my son he’s overweight. i know a lotta children musta gone to bed really upset that night*.”

    again: WAT? the school sends Mrs Smith a letter, she decides to let her son read, and it potentially upsets him, and it’s the school’s fault?

    *yeah, i totally added an annoying boston accent. so mean.

  2. chickadee

    February 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    It would be nice if the screeners used a little common sense, though. Obviously a child with muscle mass and a high BMI is not obese. Why not apply some thought before sending a letter that is inaccurate?

    That said, I don’t have a problem with private assessments of students’ health at school. They used to do that when I was in elementary school.

    • Blueathena623

      February 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      I think that would be worse. What if parents compare letters, and Sally’s mom finds out from Karen’s mom that Sally and Karen weigh the same and are the same height, but Sally is labeled overweight and Karen ok? Plus, depending on the clothes the kids wear, how exactly do you determine what’s fat or muscle? I’m assuming he kids aren’t stripping down or anything (hello 30 million lawsuits!)

    • chickadee

      February 28, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      Gah. I don’t know, but I would suspect that the obesity level indicated by the BMI would also mean that a visual inspection of a clothed individual would be sufficient to determine fat or muscle. But I am not a health professional. And frankly, I don’t think parents are going to be out there comparing letters. And if the letters prompt a visit to the pediatrician, then that’s all too the good.

    • CrazyFor Kate

      February 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      I think it was implemented in a dumb way, yeah, but it can definitely be beneficial for schools to look out for public health. My district used to offer Hep B vaccinations until some anti-vaxxers flipped out and got it cancelled. I would love to see the Hep B rates in my town in the next ten years.

  3. DeliciousIrony

    February 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    It’s always interesting to me that health and nutrition are big topics in the U.S. and everyone has something to say about the dangers of obesity, but when it applies to themselves or their children they get terribly defensive. I remember BMI checks being a regular part of gym class back when I was in high school 15 years ago. I was a big girl then, no lie. I ate crap and watched Star Trek all afternoon and it was entirely my fault. But a little bit of good information from my teachers about exercise and food choices helped me to gradually get to a better weight which helped my self esteem and social life immensely (although I am still a total nerd). I wasn’t going to get that information from my parents who had awful habits and thought obese was normal. I don’t remember my teachers judging me, they genuinely wanted to help.

  4. Paul White

    February 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I have a 40-42″ waist and a BMI of 37; I could lose about 4″ off my waist and be better for it (working on it!), but I’m never going to remotely fit the BMI unless I quit lifting and damned if that’ll happen. I can take my “ideal” weight and do 10+ overhead presses with it, or squat it for more reps than I care to count.

    I’d rather see something like measurement ratios used just because I don’t trust the BMI but I have no problem with the concept here…

    • Paul White

      February 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      oh: FTR, I’m 5’11”; my “ideal weight” would be 165 with 178 being the maximum before I class as overweight, and 214 before I’m classed as obese. I would like to get back down to about 220 this year, but I’m taking it slowly because it’s hard to keep gaining muscle while losing fat.

  5. Eileen

    February 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Up through middle school, we all got measured, weighed, hearing, and vision tested – privately, in the nurse’s office, every year. That’s how I found out that I needed glasses but had excellent hearing. BMI isn’t perfect – especially when you’re dealing with a child or anything other than an average-height, average-muscle-mass adult – but I agree with you; there’s really no issue with including a note after these basic screenings that maybe the child is verging on an unhealthy weight, as long as it’s sent discreetly and by the school nurse.

  6. Peggy

    February 28, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    I work in healthcare, and was evaluating a 215lb teenager for joint pain. When I mentioned to the parents (after a thorough assessment mind you) that it could be related to the child’s obesity, I was quickly shushed (by the parent) that this child was “overweight”, not “obese”…..
    I understand the emotional baggage that comes with weight (being an overweight/borderline obese individual myself) as well with being labeled “obese”. But this sounds like an over-reaction to a school trying to be proactive. We all tend to look at our children a little differently than a clinician might.
    PS-Alice, love the Boston accent addition. I can her it in my little brain now.

  7. bludab

    February 28, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    I feel strongly about this as I live in MA and got one of these letters from my daughters’ school. My normal sized (as in, in the normal clothes range for her age, a 9 year old in kids size 9-10) was labeled “overweight” by a slim margin on her BMI. I make most of our food from scratch, we eat modest portions of whole grains and greens and lean protein, we rarely eat fast food, and she plays outside for an hour every day; she’s on the basketball team and does gymnastics. Short of literally starving her, there’s no way she is going to get in that “desired” range until after she hits puberty, when she’ll probably follow the pattern all my family has of getting a few inches taller and a fuller figure. My younger daughter is quite thin and has a lot of catching up to do since she was a preemie with nutrition issues; but because of her unusual muscle mass, she is at the “high” end of normal (this is a kid who can wear 5T well into 1st grade) . I have been fretting about their sizes ever since I opened the envelopes, second guessing every banana or cheese stick. These letters cause more trouble than they’re worth.

    • Paul White

      March 1, 2013 at 1:16 am

      Ignore it and don’t fret about it. Seriously. You’re not the target. If she starts jiggling when she moves, then worry about it.

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