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Schools need “schooling” when it comes to fat stigma

June 18, 2012

Trigger warning: Mention of weight loss, dieting and weight loss programs for children.

This week, a study was published in the journal Child Development which supposedly links childhood obesity to poor school performance. Researchers followed a group of 6, 250 children from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that those who were obese throughout that period scored lower on math tests than non-obese children. They also found that obese children, especially girls, tended to have less social skills, and that both genders displayed more emotional difficulties, as observed by parents and teachers.

The study couldn’t address whether obesity causes a lack of social skills and emotional problems, but I think we know all too well that fat stigma plays a major role in a child’s overall mental development, especially with increasing daily messages about how unhealthy, unattractive and burdensome fat people are to society. Not only do children hear this on TV, see it on the internet, read it in books and listen to it on the street, they also have to hear it in their schools.

Schools have shifted away from a philosophy of physical activity and nutrition being a natural part of life to a “do this or you’ll get fat and die” message, with anti-obesity programs like “Let’s Move” leading the way. Children are learning that food is a moral problem and to avoid as much as possible, that food is not something they need to stay alive. They are learning that they shouldn’t move their bodies because it’s fun, but that they have to so they won’t get fat and look disgusting. They are learning to count calories, fat grams and sugar content not to see what makes up their food, but as a restrictive dietary measure.

In some states, BMI is being tracked on student report cards along with their academic progress. They are learning that it’s OK to bully others for being fat and that if they are fat themselves, they deserve to be humiliated.  These harmful actions by schools shouldn’t be celebrated, but criticized.  It is not a school’s place to be the weight police.

I’m sure a lot of schools would look at this study and say, “Well, we have to slim these kids down no matter what.” What they should say is “None of our anti-obesity measures are actually working. What we need is to talk to our students about weight stigma and that shaming people to drop the pounds isn’t healthy; that food is not the enemy; and that  regular physical activity (within one’s physical abilities) is something you do because it’s fun, not because it helps you stay thin.”

Will we ever reach that point? Probably not, because preventing and/or stopping childhood obesity is where the money is.

Schools are given generous donations in both money and materials to make kids thinner, without thinking about the consequences of how an intense focus on weight, rather than actual health, could hurt kids in the long run and possibly set them up for body image issues, eating disorders, and disordered relationships with food and exercise.

Until our society decides to quit riding the diet industry carousel,  stop treating fat bodies like public enemy number one, and stop funding the fight against fat bodies, I don’t expect it to end anytime soon. It’s a shame, because when we say “but think of the children,” we really aren’t.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 9:09 am

    Hi! Thanks for the link! I read also recently about “Food Corps” folks in our schools, ascting as “health coaches” and walking around the cafeterias commenting on what kids are eating and “cheering” them on to eat veggies, handing out stickers etc. So much potential for abuse here. Thinking about it actually keeps me up at night… My almost first-grader is so innocent. Loves food and her body, and it breaks my heart to think of all the adults (and other kids) who will mess with that… I just did another post about kids getting in on the food cop action…

    • lifeonfats permalink
      June 18, 2012 4:26 pm

      No problem! Although I don’t have kiddos, it’s still interesting to read your blog to see how much schools’ attitudes towards P.E. and nutrition education has changed since I was a student. It makes me glad to have graduated in 1993, before fat became the moral panic of the world.

    • Cat permalink
      June 22, 2012 4:25 pm

      Food Corps!?! That is truly disturbing to me. I am actually happy that my neices and nephew are home schooled. It souds like something in a movie that is set in the not too distant future. Disturbed. I am disturbed by this….

  2. Erin S. permalink
    June 18, 2012 12:06 pm

    Speaking only for myself, it’s not my body size that caused issues for me in school, as far as academics went. It was that I was too busy worrying about how I was going to make it unscathed to my next class to pay attention. Too busy planning out my route to avoid trouble spots where experience had taught me there were likely to be bullies lurking. And so worn out from the stress and worry that by the time I got home at night, I was just too depressed to want to bother with homework. Bare minimum I could do to get my parents off my back.

    And worse, knowing that the next day it would all have to be done again, and there was no point to saying anything because no matter what happened… the only one that would suffer would be me. Either I just took whatever abuse they decided to inflict that day, or I defended myself and got detentions or even suspensions for fighting. A penalty which was never applied to the bullies, because who would believe the unpopular fat kid over the captain of the football team or the head cheerleader? It was just a JOKE that I over-reacted to, not a mean spirited and downright cruel prank that they did because they knew that even if I complained, nothing would be done.

    I also have to wonder if the people doing that study gave any thought to how the teachers treat the fat kids? I know for myself that I was almost always assigned seats in the back of the room… even though my coke bottle glasses should have been a pretty good clue that just maybe I might have trouble making out the blackboard from there. And just from my experience, it wasn’t an isolated thing – the kids in the back couple rows were always the “rejects” like me — the front two rows were the cheerleaders, members of the sports teams, the popular ‘in’ crowd kids.

    And of course, once I hit older teenage and got a drivers license… probably not a surprise to anyone that more than once I elected to drive somewhere OTHER than school. Or to bail during lunch. There was a perfectly good state park, and I saw no reason to put up with being bullied and ignored at school when I could sit under a tree and read all day. And eventually, I dropped out entirely after a teacher told me that I might as well do so and save the tax payers some money, since I’d never graduate anyway and even if I did I’d never make anything of myself.

    I don’t doubt that school has gotten progressively worse since the 80’s and 90’s – increasing class sizes alone would ensure that, even without the ever increasing amounts of fat hate in society. And the scary thing is, I know that two of the girls who were my WORST bullies from 6th grade onward… have become teachers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were still bullies… people don’t tend to grow out of being hateful sacks of crap.

  3. June 18, 2012 3:46 pm

    I read the article about fat kids doing less well at Math and thought, “I think they’re just spinning the Wheel of Correlation now, because they’re running out of ideas.”

    • lifeonfats permalink
      June 18, 2012 4:25 pm

      They’ve tried to link intelligence to weight in the past and apparently it didn’t make much of a dent. It seems that if people stop caring about how fat someone is, they have to sound the alarm bells about something else to get them to care.

  4. Lesleigh permalink
    June 18, 2012 8:02 pm

    Good points, all, and thanks for bringing this to our attention. I’m most concerned with the line “They also found that obese children, especially girls, tended to have less social skills, and that both genders displayed more emotional difficulties, as observed by parents and teachers.” Yikes! We already know from prior studies that adults and kids consistently rank fat kids as less intelligent, less clean, less motivated, ad nauseam. Who’s to say this isn’t just another study proving bias in reporting?

    I realize I am a single datum in a sea of evidence, but I know I, as a fat kid and a fat adult, had to learn to develop outstanding social skills in order to compensate for my stigma. I find it hard to believe that most fat kids are emotionally and interpersonally underdeveloped.

    • Mulberry permalink
      June 19, 2012 1:08 am

      Fewer social skills could also be a result of having fewer opportunities to develop them. How are you going to learn what works if nothing you do works?

  5. June 19, 2012 9:01 am

    It’s like they are writing fake studies to help increase fat stigma in the classroom. Someone could have just wrote “Fat kids are dumber” and called it a day with that joke of a study. The powers that be will never face facts about why obesity is increasing. [I think forcing kids to sit at a desk now without gym or recesss for 7 hours a day, with homework included doesn’t help] I wrote about this issue too…

    From my own experience a lot of fat kids become bookworms and do better in school because there is less time for socializing due to their social problems from being fat. How many fat kids take refuge in books? I noticed the focus here was on MATH probably for a reason, you know?

  6. June 20, 2012 3:20 pm

    Our oldest daughter will be going to Kindergarten this fall. She’s naturally slender, so I’m not too worried about negative attention. But our youngest will be going to school in two years and I’m terrified of the way society will treat her when she’s out there on her own.

    The thing that pisses me off about these assessments of intelligence is that they don’t take stress into account at all. And any fat kid can tell you just how incredibly stressful it can be to be a fat kid in school. These claims that obesity impairs cognition is absolutely terrible and incredibly flawed. They will say anything to make adults and children fear being fat.


    • June 20, 2012 3:42 pm

      If there was anything to those claims of fat impairing cognition, well. I don’t want to sound snotty, but I’m a fat bitch, and I got a doctorate and a degree from one of the hardest universities in North America. Imagine what I could do if I were thin! */sarcasm*

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