Bullying kids into weight loss is still bullying

6a0105369e3ea1970b0147e11ad3bd970b 320wi - Bullying kids into weight loss is still bullying Parents in the Flagstaff, Arizona, school district were shocked to find their elementary school children coming home with letters from the district announcing that they were overweight. 

The children had been given a Body Mass Index test during gym, and the results – along with district commentary about how the children stacked up to the rest of the population and a demand that something be done – were sent to parents.

“They didn’t mail it home, they didn’t even bother putting it in an envelope,” parent Deborah Dela-Bruer told ABC News.  “It was stapled with a cover letter for her and her friends to see.”

The program doesn’t include improved nutrition (school lunches are notoriously unhealthy) or opportunities to exercise.  It also doesn’t test for actual health issues like high cholesterol or high blood pressure that are correlated with obesity but not limited to it (some people who are overweight don’t have these issues, while some people who aren’t overweight do). 

Doing such things would be harder than publicly sending a “fat note” home to parents, and more expensive.  The takeaway, then, is that childhood obesity is a crisis of epic proportions … but not enough to inconvenience adults over.    

Assuming that schools – or the government, or the many pundits shouting about America’s obesity epidemic – don’t actually want to spend the time and money to offer better alternatives, then shame may be the major weapon used in the “war on obesity.”

That’s probably why the school district’s program to shame kids and parents about their bodies almost certainly violates the school district’s policy against bullying.  The school district’s definition of bullying includes the following:

Bullying is repeated acts over time that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are less powerful. Bullying can be physical in form (e.g., pushing, hitting, kicking, spitting, stealing); verbal (e.g., making threats, taunting, teasing, name-calling); or psychological (e.g., social exclusion, spreading rumors, manipulating social relationships).

It’s not a stretch to see the same elements in the districts anti-obesity program.  There is a clear imbalance of power between the school district and the kids who are put through the programs – they’re not equal partners.  Kids can’t get away, or protest, without getting in trouble. 

The weighing in front of peers and school officials is physical, and it involves labeling and name-calling.  It also involves very real psychological consequences … or does anybody actually think that kids won’t get made fun of, rumors won’t be spread, and relationships be altered by the public display? 

So if kids publicly single out one of their peers for being overweight, it’s bullying; but when the school district does it, it’s for their own good?

We should know better.  The idea that you can shame someone into health goes against a considerable body of research – not to mention everyday wisdom.  Yes, you can bully some people into striving to have a body that meets your standards (though others, recognizing the bullying for what it is, will harden their resistance).  But most of the time it leads to stress, yo-yo dieting, eating disorders, and depression – not health. 

If the idea is to keep kids from being fat no matter what the cost (a true “war on obesity”) than this might have an impact. But if the idea is to have healthier kids, it’s probably already been counter-productive.  It’s also implicitly sanctioning kids to bully each other on the basis of weight:  If the district is singling these kids out, why shouldn’t other kids?

Instead of focusing on giving kids more healthy options and truly partnering with them, the district is looking to expand its shaming efforts. 

“Next up could be weigh-ins at local middle schools,” reports the Arizona Sun.  “High schools could be next, but it’s uncertain.”  Is it really possible that a child can get to Middle School and need the assistance of a school letter to know if he or she is overweight? 

Meanwhile more and more research is coming in about the way in which psychological anguish and depression can have consequences to physical health.  We need to remember, as America tips over into a War on Obesity, that in any civilized society children are non-combatants. 


— Benjamin Wachs

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