Body Image

Should schools weigh kids?

Dr Emma Johnston, Clinical Psychologist, Cumberland Park SA

7 August 2018

A suggestion has been made by the Government to introduce mandated weighing of children in schools to calculate their Body Mass Index and identify kids who are overweight or obese. Is this a good idea?

I read an article recently in the press that indicated that the Education Department has recommended that schools measure the BMI of kids to offset the problems of the ‘obesity epidemic’. So, from the point of view of mental and physical health, should calculation of BMI become an acceptable activity in schools?

Now, in the first instance, a quick google search elicits a study from the Centre for Disease Control in the US, stating that there is no evidence to support that measurement of BMI in schools achieves an overall goal of reducing obesity. One would have to question discussion about the introduction of a strategy when that strategy has no scientific backing. Sounds like Government pork-barrelling to me!

Let’s first look at BMI. It has been widely used for decades as a quick and simple measure of health, with a certain BMI range seen to be ‘healthy’ and other BMI ranges seen to be ‘unhealthy’. Plenty of studies have shown that BMI is not a measure of health in any way, as many people with a BMI in the overweight or obese range are healthy (in terms of heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, cholesterol, etc) and many people who have a BMI in the ‘normal range are not healthy (high blood pressure, high levels of fat around organs, high cholesterol, etc). So, when a measure is so simplistic as to be rendered fairly unindicative of health status, why on earth would it be considered a useful measure to bring into schools?

 

Many critics state that BMI measurements in schools will lead to bullying. Bullying, as severe as the consequences of this are, is the least of the problems that will arise if BMI is measured in schools. The internal judgements that come from classifying children as overweight or obese are the biggest issue here. Childhood is the time for the formation of the foundations of a sense of self-concept, or self-worth. To damage this at a young age, by telling a child that their body shape and size automatically renders them as unhealthy (or not good enough), is appalling. Body shape and size is predominantly genetically predetermined and only influenced in small ways by lifestyle. Measuring BMI will have children thinking that their body shape and size is not good enough, leading in many cases to depression, anxiety, self-harming and in some cases even suicide. And all of these consequences simply so the government can say that they have a new strategy to manage the ‘obesity epidemic’.

This suggestion is an absolute travesty of human rights and human dignity. In no way will shaming children about their body shape and size lead to a reduction in weight of those children, nor will it improve health. This strategy will worsen mental health, and most likely also have a resultant negative effect on physical health.

 

In my role as a Clinical Psychologist, I have worked with many people over the years who experience the consequences of having a poor body image. I have seen first-hand the negative consequences of early body related judgments on children and adults. Please think before looking at BMI as being any sort of solution and allow your GP to advise on the health of your child. Let’s let kids be kids and value what their bodies can do, not what their bodies look like.

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