Obesity Labels Cross the Line

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On Staten Island, New York, 870,000 pieces of papers labeled “Fitnessgrams” were sent home with children from the ages of 5 to 18 with the sole purpose of alerting parents of how far their children crossed the line on the obesity scale. Being children, curiosity bested them and they opened Pandora’s box. One particular 4-foot-1 and 66 pound third-grader named Gwendolyn Williams came home upset after peeking into a “Fitnessgram” that claimed she was overweight. She was off by one pound. Although she appeared to be a healthy young child far from the dangers of obesity, she was still considered obese by the New York’s Board of Education. As a result of their indiscretion, Gwendolyn, her friends, and innumerable others felt misjudged and humiliated.

Laura was furious with the Board of Education as she watched Gwendolyn question the natural jiggle of her thighs.  Gwendolyn was an active young girl. She loved to play softball and run around with her friends. Both Gwendolyn and her mother, Laura, knew Gwendolyn was far from overweight, but they consulted a fitness website anyway. The body mass index (BMI) calculator determined Gwendolyn’s weight as average — healthy.

Laura went straight to the principal for answers, but was met with sympathy and excuses. CDC stated that, “childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” In their opinion, it seemed perfectly logical to monitor and remind young persons to exercise good habits before they develop a higher risk of cardiovascular disease or prediabetes. The New York Department of Education considered the “Fitnessgrams” a positive encouragement for healthy lifestyles and personal goals, but for many parents, who are privy to witness the damage to their kids’ self-esteem, argued against the necessity for and validity of these “Fitnessgrams. ” It provided children another line to draw through the social playground, daring the children they labeled obese to cross over.

Chevese Turner from the Bing Eating Disorder Association warned against public fat shaming and its potential dangers, knowing that long-term psychological damage that comes with it would last longer than the physical status of being a tad overweight. One parent argued that the only one who has the right to warn parents of the dangers of obesity is the child’s pediatrician or doctor, regardless of how large that child may be, because that is what they are paid to do. She adamantly argued that it was unreasonable to expect a child to not read something with that child’s name on it, much less a single folded pamphlet sealed with one sticker. She suggested that the distribution of this “Fitnessgrams” should be done in a private parent teacher conferences if the New York Board of Education was insistent in having them, allowing them to avoid the careless mistake of a child reading something meant for adults.

New York was not the only state that promoted the “Fitnessgram.” The program crossed the United States, with children lining up to be labeled for their fat content, regardless of whether they actually struggle with obesity. While the program may recognize danger zones in young boys and girls, the level of personal detachment in passing on the information made a big difference in positive reinforcement of self-esteem. Luckily for Gwendolyn, she did not let a scale define her self-worth.

By Sophia Bien

New York Post
Fitness Gram