A middle school in Naples, Florida sent home a letter with an 11-year-old girl, Lily Grasso, stating that her BMI was problematically high. These types of letters, often referred to as “fat letters” are being sent home from schools with children whom have been determined to be “at risk” of obesity and many parents feel this approach is nothing short of fat shaming.
In this case, the young girl’s mother, Karen Grasso, was directed to a website where she was informed that her child was indeed overweight. Grasso voiced her concerns about the letter, saying, “To give a kid a letter telling them the rest of their life they may be overweight or they may be obese because of a measurement you took one day, it’s just not fair.”
The letters are part of a practice embraced by 20 states that chose to include BMI measurements with other physical checks administered in schools for issues such as hearing, vision and scoliosis. The problem is that vision, hearing and spine measurements account for far more comprehensive evaluation than the BMI. A vision test measures a child’s capacity to see and based on how the child performs on the test, concrete and stigma free conclusions can be drawn. BMI measurements are not so straightforward. Their results provide very little information about the child’s overall health and yet carry intense contextual ramifications.
Highlighting the unreliable nature of BMI measurements are letters that are coming home to children who are clearly not obese. Athletic children, for example, are being sent letters labeling them as obese because their BMI register higher thanks to increased muscle mass. A measurement meant to indicate health risks that cannot differentiate between people with healthy lifestyles and unhealthy lifestyles is likely not a tool to be relied upon, especially considering the discriminatory attitudes regarding obesity.
Parents who are outraged by these letters about their children have support with many experts who assert that there is a shaming element being made very clear to children who are already worried about their bodies.
Defenses of the letter include the argument that the letters are sent for the parents and that if the children read the letters then they have done something wrong. It was also asserted that the child should really only learn about the contents of the letter if the parent chose to share that information with them. The contents of these helpful letters should have no impact on the child and if it does, it is because the child violated the parent’s privacy by reading a letter not meant for them to see or because the parent chose to communicate the insult to their child.
It is unclear how so many people are able to reconcile the contradiction of sending a letter home with a child that contains information so sensitive that it should be shielded from the child. Equally baffling is the notion that the responsibility for any traumatic effects felt by being labeled as obese lay squarely on the shoulders of the parent and child. It is their fault if the label hurts.
This approach to “monitoring” health also sends a pretty clear message that obesity is shameful. Educators claim they are trying to be helpful by monitoring children’s weight and notifying parents to combat the obesity rates among children. Yet the notes pack a powerful punch, evidenced by the children who reported their dread of the results. Even a confident child like Lily had to work to process the implications of something that clearly did not apply to her.
The growing body of research showing the negative impact that shaming obesity has on adults tells us that these issues need to be addressed with much more care concerning children. It is admirable for school systems to want to lend a hand in helping to detect health problems but this approach is misleading, harmful and ineffective. It should be discarded for an approach that actually meets the goals set by well meaning educators. Schools sending home letters that label children as obese are only succeeding in fat shaming impressionable youth.
Written by: Vanessa Blanchard