This week on Twitter, a heated debate began after the U.K.-based National Obesity Forum suggested that children should be weighed in schools come September and again in the spring. The intention: to track weight gained during lockdown due to the pandemic. Advocates argued that it's important to track kids' weight, and how COVID-19 has affected it. They say that the info could be used to implement health-promoting interventions. But the proposal was met with swift backlash from people who emphasized that the practice would likely do more harm than good.
“When I was 10, we were forced to weigh ourselves at school and then share with the class. I still haven’t recovered from the things they said,” one Twitter user wrote.
Actress Jameela Jamil commented: “Hard pass. Being weighed at school was truly the minute my eating disorder started at 12. I can trace it back to that exact day. Understand that size is not an indicator of health and just teach children about nutrition, make exercise fun and stop serving them dogshit at lunch.”
Many folks commenting online spoke about the idea of weighing schoolchildren as though the concept was a relic of the past, or a hypothetical scenario prompted by the pandemic. But some states and schools around the U.S. and in the U.K. weigh students regularly, taking measurements of their Body Mass Index, explains Claire Mysko, the chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association. According to data provided to Refinery29 by NEDA’s policy team, as many as 14 states collect BMI data from schoolchildren in some capacity.
This can be downright “dangerous” and damaging to the mental health of youngsters for a few reasons, including the fact that BMI and weight are not a holistic measure of health, Mysko says.
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention says it doesn’t recommend for or against BMI measurement programs in schools, but notes that those that do it should set up a “safe and supportive environment for students of all bodies sizes” and put in place safeguards to prevent harm and decrease stigmas. The CDC adds that there’s no conclusive data showing that these programs are effective in improving health in children — but also says there’s not enough evidence to say the assessments cause harm.
Mysko disagrees, saying that these tests can lead to increased bullying, shame, and even, potentially, disordered eating. Jill Grimes, MD, a family physician in Texas, agrees that weight and BMI shouldn’t be measured in school settings. “I don’t see how schools can do it privately,” Dr. Grimes says. "The additional stress of doing this in a public arena like school is troubling."
Mysko says that instead of BMI-measuring programs, schools should be helping children figure out what makes their body feel happy and strong, not encouraging them to fixate on what it looks like or how much they weigh. “We hear from kids as young as six years old who are afraid of gaining weight,” Mysko says. “It’s important to give kids a message early on about health that is not connected to weight or body shape.” Not to mention that when you're a kid you're supposed to be growing.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the National Obesity Forum told Refinery29 in an email that it would be “a mistake” not to continue what's called the National Child Measurement Programme — which weighs kids in the UK who are 4 or 5 and 10 or 11 years old — due to the pandemic. The organization believes the NCMP should pick back up in the fall, with another spring assessment to “establish any concerning trend in weight gain or loss and intervention taken.”
The spokesperson added: “We are also well known for pointing out that zoos measure their animals annually to check their good health, but our children, the country's future, are ignored!”
When I read this comment to Mysko, she said she was “flabbergasted” and noted that comparing children to zoo animals was unhelpful and "bizarre."
“We know that weight and BMI are not accurate measures of health,” she responded. “And while we do need screenings in schools for a variety of issues, including eating disorders, and we need to be mindful and vigilant about ensuring that we’re measuring the health of kids. Weight and BMI are not what we should be looking at.” She adds that the onus of health shouldn't be placed on an individual, especially a child. "This is a systemic problem, not an individual issue, Many people in our community who have struggled with eating disorders or who are in higher weight bodies have been subjected to years or lifetimes of diets and harmful weight loss programs, all built on the assumption that an individual can control their weight or environment, which isn't a helpful or accurate way of framing the discussion."
And to put that on a child who has little to no control of their environment, of what they eat, and of their ability to exercise? Who might not even be allowed to cross the street without an adult? That's a major issue, Mysko says.
She adds that the fact that the NOF is doubling down on the issue of weighing children during the coronavirus is exceptionally risky, emphasizing that BMI doesn't tell the whole story about health. "With COVID-19, yes, there are very serious life-threatening complications, but we have to look at mental health as well," Mysko says.
“We really need to look at the risks of shaming kids for their body size in an environment when there are already so many mental health risks,” she says. “We need to be supporting kids now more than ever."