FitnessGrams: the Latest in Fat Shaming

A gawky 12-year-old girl gets off the bus and skips to the mailbox. She collects the mail and notices a letter from her school.  Curious, she opens it up to find the results of her annual physical fitness assessment.  She rolls her eyes because she’s a bookworm and PE is not her best subject. She can’t do pull ups or run the mile in the required time. She frowns as she reaches the bottom of the results: there is a grade, and she has been graded to be overweight based on her height and weight. She is mortified.

As the excellent article from Salon points out, these FitnessGrams, letters on the results of students’ physical fitness assessments, are a reality for students in 19 states and include with a judgment of whether the student is at a healthy weight, underweight, overweight or obese.

I wondered why I reacted so strongly to the practice of sending FitnessGrams, and then I recalled 6th grade.  Weighing and assessing children is nothing new.  We were weighed annually with that information recorded in our files by the school nurse even in the dark ages of the 80s.  At the 6th grade weigh-in, we shared our weight with each other as usual. My weight was 114 pounds, and I remember some friends exclaiming at how high the number was.  I was embarrassed because it was one of the highest weights in my class that day. In no way was I overweight or saw myself as overweight. If anything, throughout high school, I was probably underweight given my height. I never had a weight problem as a child, which was fortunate since I could put away some food.

Starting in the 4th grade, however, I grew taller and taller. By the 6th grade, I was one of the tallest girls if not one of the tallest students in my grade. I liked being tall and never had any problems with my height except for the usual complaints about the difficulty of finding pants and shirts that are long enough.  A lot of things begin to change in the 6th grade, though. You are on the cusp of becoming a teenager; suddenly boys are not as icky, and girls start wondering what would happen if they experimented with a bit of makeup or clothes.   Appearance begins to become more important and the judgment about whether you are attractive or not becomes less abstract and more emphasized.

As I grew taller, my shorter friends’ height began to stabilize. I felt gawky, awkward and huge. They were dainty and petite. I remember walking down to the field for gym class with a friend that year. She was tiny and blonde, well-dressed and well-coiffed. She was like a perfect doll. I felt like a lumbering, clumsy hulk next to her. My thighs looked fleshy and pale next to her tiny tanned limbs.  114 pounds sounded like a lot of weight, and it would not surprise me to have received the shaming, damning judgement of being “overweight” if FitnessGrams had been around in my day.  Already not feeling great about my appearance and body at age 12, I wonder how much further damage there would have been to have seen my school’s judgment of my body and health in print.

I’m sure that the decision to engage in FitnessGrams was meant well.  Headlines scream about the epidemic of childhood obesity.  The country clearly has a weight problem; it makes sense that the key to prevent overweight adults is to help prevent overweight children. My son’s pediatrician begins testing cholesterol and recommending a switch from whole milk to low-fat milk at age 2.

The problem is that while well-meaning, these initiatives are meant as a panacea instead of attacking the root causes of obesity. As the article points out, instead of patronizingly reminding overweight children to eat fruits and vegetables, why don’t we stop cutting recess and gym from the school day and stop serving crap in school lunches?  Instead of assuming that the majority of parents are clueless and give their children heaping bowls of sugar and fat at every meal, let’s look into the economics and reality of what it takes to cook and eat a healthy meal: access to fruits and vegetables, the ability to afford them, time and the ability and equipment to cook them.  Unless those root causes are addressed, you are shaming the victims.

We are so sick about weight in this country. If I run into old classmates from high school, I wonder if they are thinking how much weight I have put on in the last 20 years.  I look in the mirror and instead of celebrating my good features, I frown and pinch skin, knowing I’d look better and acceptable if I were a skeleton, a coat hanger. Weight was always a touchy subject in my family; you could have any other problem or behavior, but being overweight was taboo. My aunts were obsessed with their weight and the weight of their children. I was told to enjoy being able to eat what I wanted because it would catch up with me one day. I was also told by my mother that my thighs resembled those of my father’s family; it was not meant as a compliment.   The message I internalized was that fat was bad, and I suspect my experience isn’t outside the norm.

The funny thing is that historically, fat was associated with wealth. If you were anything but gaunt or skinny, you likely had the means to eat consistently if not also very well. Fat equaled success.  Modern society has reversed that. Now, thinness is equated with success. I attribute this shift to Puritan values such as the much-vaunted Protestant work ethic that influenced this country from colonial times.   The Puritans shunned epicureanism in favor of hard work and austerity.  The Protestant work ethic is the belief that individual hard work leads to success. A lack of success, therefore, is due to a lax moral character that results in self-indulgence instead of self-discipline. Therefore, successful people must be thin because thinness means a person has self-discipline and willpower.  Thinness means that the person is in control of himself and his appetites and can withstand temptation. At the very least, thinness means that the person has the wealth to buy the food, the trainers, the equipment and/or the surgical procedures to be thin. And as a result, being overweight is often considered to be a moral failing, a failure of willpower.

I don’t know what the solution is. I used to think that having a son meant that he was immune from the pressure to be thin, but that’s less true every day. I do know that the solution to the obesity problem is not shaming children.  It is not ignoring the cost of food and the inequities that make it so much easier to buy crap instead of healthy ingredients.  As usual, though, it’s far easier to finger wag than to make the necessary changes that might put us all on a healthier path.

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17 comments

  1. I HATE this. Hate hate hate. When I was signing up the kids for kindergarten I asked to talk to the nurse because we have a lot of health concerns – and she was in getting heights and weights of first graders. Required by the state. It sickens me, as a mother of a tube-fed child, that someone other than us and the doctors we choose will have access to that information, will make judgments on him based on that information. That someday, he could receive a letter telling him he’s not healthy because of some arbitrary chart, when we work closely with his doctors to monitor and maintain his growth.

    I personally intend on doing everything in my power to opt my kids out of this. I also am having it placed in his school medical plan that he is to be put in a different activity during nutrition lessons (and possibly his twin too), and NO ONE in the school is allowed to speak to him about the nutritional status of his food. Period. I had one fellow tube mom find out her preschooler was told his snack wasn’t “healthy enough” and turn her child further off oral eating, and another former-tube mom have her 4 year old come home saying she was fat based on her preschool lessons. Nuh-uh. This is not how you solve childhood obesity. Even beyond the blaming the victim mentality you mentioned above – one size does not fit all and there are going to be a variety of ways to eat healthily and maintain a healthy weight, and currently kids on specialized diets are lumped right in with everyone else, as if they, as children, are supposed to be able to filter it out and realize that it doesn’t mean them.

    1. While I believe that there are definitely some problems with nutrition education, to be fair, your experiences with your child are outside the norm. The lessons don’t apply to your situation and can therefore, be easily misinterpreted by you child. However, for many children, these lessons do have useful information. I have spent a lot of time in my children’s schools and I am frequently dismayed by the lunches that are sent from home by families that I know have plenty of access to fresh food. There is a need for education but clearly one size will not fit all.

      1. It’s outside the norm only in that he’s run into unique nutritional needs at a younger age than some people. Nutrition is NOT one size fits all, and children with diabetes, celiac disease, multiple food allergies/intolerances, metabolic disorders, mitochondrial disorders, congenital heart issues, etc, etc, etc, all suffer under the current system. Teaching them about food, about carbs, proteins, and fats, about how our body uses that as energy, yes. Labeling certain foods as good and others as bad? No. Critiquing the food brought in TO a young child? NO. Children do misinterpret things. They do see things as black or white. There needs to be education, but not at the expense of ANY child, which can only happen if EVERY child and their situation be considered before a lesson begins, before any policy is adopted. With the fitness grams, did anyone sit down and think about kids who might have health concerns who, because of their still being children, would not be able to shrug off the label given to them and feel bad about themselves for something fully out of their control? My guess is no.

  2. I had not heard of those letters. I agree I don’t see the good side to them and we need to act to help kids make the better choices as well as provide them with better food & opportunity to exercise. That doesn’t guarantee skinny kids, but it does help create healthy kids physically & emotionally which is far greater.

  3. This is a terrible idea. The last thing a middle schooler needs is a FitnessGram. I was really underweight in middle school and mean kids called me horrible names in gym class (which I won’t repeat here): I had to deal with the Presidential Fitness Exam each year, always failing the pull-up part. Nothing about that experience was positive in any way. Junior high is an awkward time because we are growing in all sorts of ways and the worst thing to do is point out these various growing pains.

  4. I’m not sure how I feel about this, and here’s why. A fitness gram may have helped my parents realize that their approach to eating, and feeding us kids, was dead wrong. We were expected to clean our plates (with adult size portions) every night from age 6. My parents cooked junk – we never had fresh veggies as they all came from frozen boxes with butter or cheese sauce. They called that healthy. We had potatoes (most usually frozen fried potatoes) at every meal. We were fed sugary cereal every morning. The only healthy part to each meal was the grilled meat we had, and even that was covered in butter once off the grill. My parents taunted us for being overweight and, “built like trucks,” but it was ALL their doing and teaching. We were not encouraged to play any sports beyond basketball through 6th grade, and being active was not something we witnessed. Poor examples all around in regards to health.

    IF fitness grams are going to exist, then education for parents needs to come with them. They can’t just be assessments – they need to educate parents on feeding their kids healthy food and encouraging exercise.

    1. I agree 100% that there needs to be education as well. Do you think a fitness gram would have helped your parents realize what they were doing or would they have shrugged it off?

  5. I relate to this so much. I was a tall kid, and my best friend was a tiny tanned blonde who once told me that boyfriend X just loved how “there’s NOTHing to me here,” putting one hand on her flat stomach, one on the small of her back, turning sideways to show me exactly how thin she was.

    Anyway.

    My dad’s side of the family is hugely prejudiced against overweight people, whereas my Peruvian mom’s side of the family celebrates a well-rounded body.

    I have not found fat-shaming to be in any way healthy or effective in my life. Bleah.

  6. I’ve not heard of these, but I am 32yrs old and I remember being weighed in school as far back as kindergarten so it’s certainly nothing new. The school can weigh my kids all they want because I’m confident in what they’re fed and how active they are. Children and families aren’t going to learn to live healthier lifestyles unless they’re told they have a problem that needs fixing. Just like with any other health concern.

  7. I agree that it is a well-meaning idea with unintended consequences. So often, stuff like this is not put in context or given any kind of helpful explanation. For our children, we would discuss it but my children have grown up with conversations about healthy eating, food as fuel, body image and healthy weight. I can’t imagine a letter like this being taken too seriously by them.

  8. As someone who takes medical care of patients with obesity and the consequences thereof, I find this topic so complicated (and thus, worth talking about!). Its hard for those of us in healthcare to handle this the right way—on the one hand, I ethically cannot ignore it during a medical visit, yet I don’t want to be giving the same old lecture that goes in one ear & out the other, along with a good dose of (albeit unintentional) shaming and reproach. I try very hard to be sensitive to the social/cultural/economic realities but I don’t always know the whole story and as empathetic as I try to be, I don’t know how genuine it truly comes across (what does she know? I can hear them saying as they leave…)

    I know we need better ways to help people learn about healthy choices, but there isn’t the societal support for those kind of large scale interventions. I do think starting with children, teaching them things they can take home to their families, is the best way to stop the cycle that we see in a lot of families—there are a lot of people eating the way Courtney described above, with no realization that they are hurting themselves & their kids. Doing it in a tactful, health-focused (vs. size-focused) manner is certainly preferable.

    There is a lot of research that shows that overweight in kids is highly correlated with diabetes, etc… as an adult (if it doesn’t start in adolescence), so alerting parents to this risk in their kids is certainly the right thing to do—but how to do it in a way that doesn’t lead to emotional harm and perhaps worse consequences in the form of eating disorders? Certainly the numbers should be private—girls should not have their weight or BMI known by their peers! Many people object to the terms “overweight” and “obese”—but what would be the better alternative?

    1. I agree that it is complicated. The schools are trying. I get that, but how much follow up is there? Do they try to help arrange nutrition classes for parents or maybe address it during conferences when they could do it one on one or is it simply the letter in the mail?

  9. I am here from the Round up…this kind of thing makes me very sad…I, too, am very tall & felt very gawky in school, was ridiculed for my weight to the point I turned to anorexia…I don’t want my daughter to go thru this but how do I teach her to be confident in her self & block out all that negative feedback? Thnak you for posting this.

  10. “instead of patronizingly reminding overweight children to eat fruits and vegetables, why don’t we stop cutting recess and gym from the school day and stop serving crap in school lunches?”

    So very true.

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