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Letter to the Educator —

March 12, 2012
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Last November, Heather shared a letter she sent to several educators at her son’s school regarding weight shaming and Health At Every Size. In light of erylin’s post today on her daughters’ experience with their gym teacher, I wanted to share a template of Heather’s letter that parents can use to start a conversation with their school. Feel free to use and adapt to suit your needs:

Dear [EDUCATORS],

I hope that you take the time to really think about the information that I will present because I’m writing out of a deep and grave concern for our children’s health, well-being, and self-esteem. Today [INSERT EXPERIENCE HERE]. (Example from Heather’s letter: Today two things happened that bothered me. Firstly, a child from my son’s class called me “a fat, ugly, lady” (this has already been addressed with the asst. principle) and, secondly, my son told me that his PE teacher told him that candy makes you fat and that being fat is bad. I see a direct link between what’s being taught and the comment from my son’s classmate.)

By focusing on weight instead of health, we teach kids to hate their own bodies, as well as to hate other people because of their bodies. Weight bullying, stigma, and discrimination are serious problems. Children who are not only fat, but perceive themselves to be fat, are at a higher risk of suicide attempts, as well as eating disorders.

I want to emphasize that fat doesn’t make these kids depressed or develop EDs; rather, being shamed, stigmatized, discriminated against, and bullied puts them at a higher risk for psychological problems. Constantly being told their bodies are bad, wrong, and need to be changed is what puts them at a higher risk. Not only that, but eating disorders are becoming a problem for younger children, with boys quickly catching up to girls in this area. And eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

These kids, who are being taught that fat is bad, have fat parents, siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, or may be fat themselves. By emphasizing weight as the same as health or poor diet as the sole cause of higher weights, you are setting kids up to bully and be bullied by placing stereotypes on these kids. A recent study found that fat kids ate less on average than thin kids. Also, no study has ever shown that certain behaviors result in thinness. In fact, studies done on genetics and weight show that weight is up to 80% inheritable.

So what’s my alternative? Teaching kids to eat healthy and be active for the fun of it. We should teach kids  healthy behaviors because they want to be healthy, not because they want to be thin and not because they think fat is unhealthy. A growing body of evidence proves that people who are fat, but leading a healthy lifestyle, are just as healthy as thin, active people, and healthier than thin, inactive people.

Recent studies also show that people in the “overweight” category live longer than “normal” weight people, and that “obese” people with a BMI under 35 lived just as long as “normal” weight people, while “underweight” people died soonest. In light of that study, consider that 74% of women chose an ideal body that was 10-20% underweight. Also, bear in mind that 12 in 100,000 children have type 2 diabetes, while at least 2,700 children in 100,000 have eating disorders.

A simple way to promote health without putting children at risk for suicidal ideation and EDs is to emphasize the exact same ideas that you already promote:

  • Be healthy!
  • Be active!
  • Eat healthy foods!

Just don’t mention weight loss. Making weight loss the primary goal simply ensures that later in life they will see things like exercise and healthy eating as a punishment or a chore rather than something to be enjoyed. In addition, by framing healthy eating and exercise as weight loss tools, kids who don’t become thin through lifestyle changes will believe that weight is the only thing that matters (for example, a two-year study of the EatRight Program at the University of Alabama found that after two years of healthy eating and regular exercise participants lost an average of 7.5 pounds, while just 33% of participants lost more than 5% of their starting weight).

These kids will then either give up on healthy lifestyles or exercise even more and eat even less to achieved greater results; thus you have the reason why kids who perceive themselves as “overweight” are at a higher risk for eating disorders and suicidal ideation. These programs teach kids that it’s okay to not only judge a person by their appearance, but to assign moral value to health, which results in people with chronic illnesses being stigmatized. And since emotional health is directly correlated with overall physical health, it creates a vicious cycle.

The thing is, you can’t tell kids that fat is bad and then punish a kid for using fat as an insult. What are we teaching kids? That it’s okay to think these things, but we can’t say them? The Academy for Eating Disorders released a statement specifically about anti-obesity programs in schools, which warns of the risks of these programs, as well as providing ways to promote health without focusing on weight.

I know I’ve thrown a lot of studies and statistics out there, but this is an incredibly important issue and these methods are putting my child (as well as [HIS/HER] friends and classmates) at risk. Because [HE/SHE] is not old enough to read the studies or to research the science, it’s up to all of us to give [HIM/HER] not only the correct information, but also to ensure [HIS/HER] best chances at health and happiness.

I hope for, and expect, a reply on these issues and look forward to engaging in an open discussion. I can certainly recommend more references, books, studies, etc. I appreciate all of the hard work that you do educating our children on the importance of health and fitness, and I hope that we will be able to work together to develop a more comprehensive, and less shaming, approach.

Sincerely,
[ME]

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 12, 2012 8:56 pm

    This is really good, Shannon. Thanks to you, Heather and Erylin!

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