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.