According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, more than one-third of all children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2010. The numbers are on the rise and will continue to increase unless a cultural change prevents the unhealthy lifestyles that lead to obesity.
Schools have become the vanguard for preventing obesity. In September, CBS Los Angeles reported that more and more schools are measuring the body mass index BMI of each child at the beginning of the school year. These schools then send the results of the BMI tests home to parents in what some children call “fat letters.”
Critics describe these letters as harsh and potentially compromising to the mental health of the children. The negative connotations of these “fat letters” may seriously degrade the self confidence of children who are sent home with them, and may make them feel judged by their peers. Consequently, these letters, which are intended to benefit physical health, could end up harming the mental health of the very children they try to help.
Parents who question the wisdom of these “fat letters” may be of the same type as those who encourage children to love themselves just the way they are. They discourage comparison to anyone else because, after all, everyone is beautiful in their own way. These values are a part of a concept I call the “You are Beautiful” movement, in which children are taught to be happy with their unique characteristics. It is easy to see where the idea of “fat letters” would collide with these cultural messages of self-love and self-esteem.
The “You are Beautiful” movement has many positive aspects. Self-esteem and self-love are healthy things to internalize. Every human being on this planet is different, and comparison to other people is futile and unhealthy in many ways. People cannot naturally change most aspects of beauty, like hair or facial structure. In most cases, changing these aspects of beauty does not affect the overall health of a person either; they are purely aesthetic.
However, weight is not like that. While weight may factor into what Americans define as beautiful, it is unlike other aesthetic components because it affects one’s health. Weight significantly affects quality of life, length of life and the activities that people are capable of doing. Moreover, a healthy weight makes many people significantly happier and more satisfied with their lives.
Healthy eating and good exercise habits come from education. The earlier children begin to learn how to have a healthy lifestyle, the more likely they are to internalize and incorporate these ideas into their own lifestyles as they get older.
I think that letters indicating fitness results offer opportunities for families to check this learning progress and reverse unhealthy habits before it is too late. While these letters may upset families in the moment, they can ultimately bring good. These letters can correct the unhealthy lifestyles of families, and it is ultimately better for families to be aware of potentially life-threatening health risks.
These letters contain news that may be hard to hear, but they are designed for the children’s benefit. Schools have the opportunity to educate children and help them form healthy habits. Letters indicating fitness results are an inexpensive, honest way of doing so. Delivering the news is hard, but doing so in a sensitive yet uncompromising way can be a major component in reversing a seriously unhealthy trend.
Maggie Weiss ’16 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Excelsior, Minn. She majors in history and Spanish.
Image by Alli Livingston