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.

Ranting over the Internet

I love the Internet. Thank you, Al Gore, for inventing it. I’ve written before about how lonely it was growing up in a rural area in late 80s and early 90s. After the sun went down and people went to bed, it could be very lonely.

I am so thankful that thanks to the Internet, I am never alone. Someone is always awake or at the very least, I can tweet something, knowing it will be seen later. Having such high regard for Twitter and Facebook seems silly and frivolous but folks, I lived in a rural area in which nothing happened after sunset. It was incredibly isolating and lonely.

That said, I like to think the Internet exposes us all to new ideas and ways of thinking. Unfortunately, what I’ve discovered is that while the Internet is a democratizing tool, what it enables is every mode of thinking from the incredibly ignorant to the brilliant. Or maybe I should stop beating around the bush: there are some stupid people on the Internet. And these stupid people often share their stupidity widely and loudly.

Am I being elitist? Narrow-minded? Judgmental? Yes, probably. And I own it proudly. Because when did the ability to think critically become a negative????

The truth is that that while the Internet has enabled unbelievable levels of connectivity, it has also given everyone a voice. And I’m shocked at some of what I read.

Before the rise of the Internet. I could believe that people were mostly intelligent and thoughtful. Now, however, I am forced to conclude that many people don’t have a damn clue what they are talking about and lack the ability to think critically. Because I’ve read them. Their articles. Their blogs. It’s appalling.

What the hell has happened to our civilization in which critical thinking has become a lost skill? And if your comment is anything other than, “OMG! U R a rock star,” your comment is deleted. What happened to discourse? To thought?

I realize that I am on a tangent, but I have seen some stuff recently that makes me want to throw knives at the wall. Hard. Deep impact.

So here is a brief list of what to stop doing on the Internet as of today. I know the list will grow and feel free to suggest your own items.

  • Stop trying to prove you can eat healthily on $5 a day or whatever. Here’s the thing. You are missing the full picture of what it is like to be poor in this country, so your experiment is nothing but ignorant and elitist. If you want to replicate typical conditions, work outside the home all day and then have to take mass transit to a store in your area. Buy only what you can carry and then go home.  Or, go to a store and buy what is available period. Do you have an hour to cook lentils or quinoa? Or are your children asking for dinner around 6 PM because they need to be in bed before 8 so they can be up when needed the next morning? If I want to cook fresh chicken, it will take me almost an hour in the oven or 15-20 minutes on the stove top. Pork? 30 minutes in the oven.  It’s easy to focus on, “I bought all this awesome food for $5 and cooked in 20 minutes” when  you are either home all day and/or live in an area in which such food is readily available.  The bottom line is that YOU DON”T KNOW what it is like, and your laughable experiments help no one.
  • Stop fat-shaming. Do you think overweight people don’t know they are fat? Do you think that your posting pictures on your blog of barely-obscured identities will help? Posting pictures is horrific and unethical. What gives YOU the right to be the arbiter for health and acceptance in this country? Especially when you likely don’t have all the information. Let’s look at statistics about poverty as well as food availability in an area.  Do you really think any parent wants their child to be overweight and unhealthy? NO. The problem, though, is likely what food is available and that can vary dramatically based on income level.  Not because the parents don’t know better but because of what is available and affordable.  So before you start fat-shaming children on the Internet, stop and think for a moment…a few seconds (surely your brain can spare that?) about what might be contributing the situation you feel compelled to pillory.

Rant over. For now. Seriously: what do you want to see ended on the Internet?