Weighing Children in Schools Won’t Fix ‘Obesity’, But Will Foster Poor Mental Health

Trigger warning: Discussion of weighing, weight, eating disorders, self harm and poor mental health.

Fresh off the back of the announcement that we might be about to get approached by people in the supermarket to judge our diet and our health, it has been announced that schools may be forced to start weighing pupils in order to meet Ofsted’s new ‘obesity checks’, part of a government strategy to tackle ‘obese’ and ‘overweight’ children.

The new regulations would mean that any pupils identified as ‘obese’ would be provided with additional ‘support’, including free gym classes and home visits, with a view to helping them become ‘healthier’. Schools could then be rated (yes, rated on the ‘fatness’ of their pupils) by Ofsted based on how well they are able to help children in their school maintain a ‘healthy weight’.

Who is it that’s going to decide what a ‘healthy weight’ is (if someone says ‘BMI’ I will scream)? Is someone going to work that out for each individual kid, or decide lighter is better and apply is across everyone, regardless? What support will be given to the poor kids whose parents can’t always afford the healthiest meals, or the disabled children whose needs are more complicated? Did ANYONE think this through for even half a second?

Children learn to see food and its consequence – fatness – as something to be feared from an early age. Whether it’s the body stigma they see in the media or the messages they internalise from their own family and friends, the statistics around children and worrying about their weight is terrifying. We already live in a world where research has found that children as young as three years old have body image issues and four year olds are already putting themselves on diets. Younger and younger children are losing the feeling of simple pleasure and nourishment that food brings, so to enforce the idea that being ‘fat’ is inherently bad, in the place that children are supposed to be safe in their learning, is incredibly harmful to children’s mental and, yes, physical health.

Mental health and eating disorders

Singling out larger children could have a significant negative impact on their mental health, and will potentially cause them to suffer abuse from their peers – as anyone who has been bullied for their weight at school will understand. I remember during my own schooldays, during a maths lesson, we were learning about weighing and in their wisdom the teachers decided a good exercise would be to weigh everyone in the class.

And then write the names of the heaviest and lightest pupils up on the board.

I can’t remember the purpose of this, or what the teacher thought this would teach us about measuring. What I do remember is the face of the girl whose name was under the word ‘heaviest’, the film of tears over her eyes, and the way she hunched her shoulders and tried to make herself as small as possible. I would bet any amount of money that she remembers this too.

While I hardly expect schools to write ordered lists of children’s weights, it will be incredibly difficult to keep who has been labelled ‘obese’ amongst naturally curious, often gossipy and sometimes cruel children.

“Because of how large I was, they’d say: “you’re too fat to be anorexic.”

“We got weighed in school, I was 10 stone at the age of 10,” says Lauren. “Everyone was discussing their weight and it was then I realised I was double the weight of most of my peers. that also made me feel like sh*t and embarrassed about myself. This one kid in primary school put a drawing pin on my chair because they wanted to see if I’d pop when I sat on it.”

“I began making jokes about being anorexic — it was the only way I knew how to ask for help,” explains Shelby, in her brutally honest essay entitled ‘I like to think of myself as a rabbit‘. “But because of how large I was, friends and adults would simply laugh and brush the statements off. They’d say: ‘you’re too fat to be anorexic’, to my horror, but I’d laugh with them anyway; me, the butt of the joke, always laughing at itself.”

Shelby told The Nopebook, “I really believe that the pressure of being able to run a six minute mile alongside weekly weigh ins and every day bullying peaked my eating disorder, and my self harm, so I don’t understand why institutions could find it helpful.”

But it’s not just the ‘obese’ children at risk here. Naturally slim children won’t have access to the same ‘health support’ as the larger kids, and there’s a great risk of health issues – both physical and mental – being ignored just because their bodies fit the mould of what the powers that be have decided is ‘healthy’. Children suffering from eating disorders might even find themselves being praised for their weight, because it’s low enough to avoid the ‘obese’ label their classmates might have been given.

“If school had been weighing me as well, I know it would have just gotten worse.”

“When I was 13, my Biology teacher asked us to weigh ourselves and work out our BMIs,” says Liv, our Politics and Activism editor here at The Nopebook. “Thankfully, my teacher was fantastic and told us we could opt out of the exercise if wanted to. As a teenager with an undiagnosed eating disorder, I was grateful for the out. I was already obsessively weighing myself at home every day. I can’t imagine how much worse things could have been if I was forced to weigh myself in front of my entire class.”

“I was underweight because my mum definitely had an undiagnosed eating disorder, and I felt like I needed to be as small as her,” says another woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I would be borrowing her size six clothes because I wasn’t eating. If school had been weighing me as well, I know it would have just gotten worse.”

So often people are more concerned with the size of someone’s waistband – even if that someone is a child – than the state of their mental health, and see mental health as something that is worth sacrificing for the sake of a number on the scales. In anyone, but especially in children, it is never worth the sacrifice.

Equating ‘thin’ with ‘healthy’

Equating ‘fat’ automatically with ‘unhealthy’ and ‘thin’ automatically with ‘healthy’ is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set, and ignores a plethora of other physical and mental factors that contribute towards someone’s health. Not to mention that for so many people, this correlation is completely false, and a perpetuated assumption that causes shame, depression, and full bank accounts for the lucrative diet industry.

“Two years ago, I was commissioned to undertake a week-long experiment to be written up in a newspaper about the health impact of diets,” says Natasha Devon in an article for Tes. “It still has not been seen by the public, because the experiment found that weight loss does not automatically equal improved health and the newspaper and several of their ‘sister’ publications could not find a good time to publish and not annoy their advertisers in the diet industry. This alone tells you everything you need to know about the way our health and bodies have been commoditised.”

“I was dizzy, irritable, my grades were plummeting, but I was finally going to attain the body everyone else needed me to have.”

“I was a very fat kid, but I was good at sports,” explains another, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Extra good. But I was fat, so I wasn’t allowed to be good at baseball. I ran away and dropped my favourite sport to play tennis. Again, I was good. But an entire team of baseball guys dumped a trash cans of piss on me because they thought I was still too fat to play tennis.”

“I was running a mile a day and performing any other gym activities,” Shelby continues in her essay. “Additionally, I’d stopped eating. If I did eat, I drank slim fast shakes, that my parents more than willingly purchased for me. I remember feeling so happy and proud when I saw my new weight: 170 pounds! I’d dropped 20 pounds in a little less than a month. I was dizzy, irritable, my grades were plummeting, and I also had a delusion that I was a vampire, but I was finally going to attain the body everyone else needed me to have.”

There are many unhealthy behaviours – not to mention serious illnesses that have nothing to do with our actions at all – that could cause someone to lose weight, and many larger bodies that are living perfectly healthy lifestyles. We have been convinced that fat = bad for so long that we’re blind to anything that tells us otherwise – in 2016 a study by UCLA psychologists found that 54.2 MILLION Americans classed as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ according to their BMI were perfectly healthy. They also found the link between BMI and other health indicators such as blood pressure, insulin resistance and cholesterol levels to be incredibly misleading.

Fat stigma

In The Times, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, the former chairwoman for the Centre for Social Justice’s obesity working group, said: “Nobody, and no child, wants to be fat and we should be doing everything to help children lose weight as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t stigmatise them.”

No child wants to be fat, you say? I wonder why that is? Maybe it’s because the media, supposed health organisations and their places of learning continue to bombard them with the message that fat is automatically bad. And maybe, initiatives that involve labelling and segregating ‘obese’ children are exactly the kind of thing that stigmatises them?

The Baroness goes on to justify the proposed weighing: “Not least we need to know what we’re up against and the only way to do that is by regular weighing and measuring.” As with so much of the fatphobic rhetoric that surrounds us every day, ‘fatness’ is positioned as the enemy, something we are ‘up against’. ‘Fat’ cannot merely be a body type; it’s an insult, cause for concern, or even a death sentence.

Many body positive activists have reclaimed the word ‘fat’ for what it is; a simple descriptor. Body diversity is something to be celebrated, not vilified, and certainly not something to attack in children.

“There’s only a ‘problem’ in the first place thanks to a reliance on measures that were never meant to be used to measure health.”

“Focusing on the weight of individual children does precisely nothing other than to add guilt, shame and potential mental health issues into the mix,” continues Natasha. “Furthermore, the tactic of simply alerting parents won’t do anything to help families who, for a variety of complex reasons, struggle to access healthy food and regular physical activity. What it will do, however, is harm children like me – who are tall, muscular, broad and non-white (black and mixed-race children regularly have an ‘overweight’ BMI despite being obviously slender).”

So, is it important to make health a priority for children in schools? Absolutely. That’s not under question. What is questionable, and incredibly problematic, is the dubious parameters of ‘health’ that are being applied to all children, and the complete disregard for mental health. Forcing schools to start weighing and measuring students, and singling out those categorised as ‘obese’ will do little to tackle the ‘childhood obesity’ problem – one, because there’s only a ‘problem’ in the first place thanks to a reliance on measures that were never meant to be used to measure health (BMI was invented by a mathematician, not a doctor, and explicitly said it wasn’t for measuring health), and the reason so many of us are classed as ‘obese’ is because there is a profit to be made from us believing that. Two, because forcing children, or anyone, into a certain size doesn’t work, and only leads to poor mental health, yo-yo dieting and fluctuating weight which, surprise surprise, isn’t good for your health.

And finally? Because if the permeation of diet culture in society has taught us anything over the years, it’s that even if you do achieve their near-impossible standards, they simply move the goalposts.

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