Schools need “schooling” when it comes to fat stigma
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.