Some schools are still weighing kids. Critics say the screenings create 'body dissatisfaction and stigma.'
Should schools be tracking students' weight and BMIs?
Did this happen to you as a kid? You get lined up in the gym with your class and, perhaps along with a scoliosis check, a hearing test or a vision screening, you are asked to step on one of those old, metallic slide scales. The school nurse or a parent volunteer reads your weight aloud and someone records it. Later, your parents get a report with your “stats” and any recommendations based on your results. Maybe you need glasses or a back brace. Possibly, the school will recommend that you lose weight. How did that feel?
The pros and cons of public screenings
These free screenings can be an important public service provided through the school system, a way to check on kids who otherwise might not have access to regular well-child checks. In the post-2020 era, schools might also provide vaccine clinics, or might offer free COVID test kits for kids to take home.
But one of these screenings, the weigh-in, which gets interpreted into the controversial measuring tool, the body mass index (BMI) or a body fat percentage, is one that might be worth reevaluating. In the wake of the newest American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on “obesity” care and the pushback they've received, experts say we need to look carefully at how we treat kids when it comes to their bodies.
“The data is in,” says Denise Hamburger, a body image expert and founder and executive director of BeReal USA, a non-profit that brings body image resources and curriculum to schools. According to Hamburger, weigh-ins “don’t do any good" and "don’t provide any health benefits to the child.”
The “data” she is referring to are reports from the last few years from Massachusetts intervention programs and BMI tracking in California schools which show no health improvements as a result of these programs. Kids do not lose weight or make healthier choices due to BMI scores being sent home, and research suggests schools should dedicate resources to more effective programs.
There are also adverse effects of measuring kids’ BMIs in such a public forum. “Being weighed at school among peers sets kids up for weight-focused, body comparison talk we wouldn't wish on any growing child,” says Oona Hanson, an educator and parent coach who speaks out against diet culture and its effect on young people.
“The only thing we do know is it creates body dissatisfaction and stigma,” says Hamburger, citing the 2020 study in California schools. Again, feeling badly about themselves did not motivate kids or lead to healthier outcomes in the long run. Studies also show that ongoing negative messaging about our bodies leads to increased mental health issues, including eating disorders, the second leading cause of death of any mental health disorder.
Is your kid getting weighed (and shamed) at school?
While training teachers in Body Kind, the body image curriculum she created to replace the problematic Dove marketing curriculum sent to schools in the early 2000s, Hamburger found out that Illinois was one of many states that weighed students and sent home reports to parents. “Teachers were telling me that they had to weigh the kids and the kids don’t like it,” she says, but the teachers were told they were required to comply in order to receive funding as part of the Presidential Youth Fitness Program.
BeReal launched the Don’t Weigh Me in School campaign to advocate for the end of school weigh-ins and to help parents find out if their kids are getting weighed and learn how to respond if they are. According to its research, 40% of students in the U.S. get weighed in school, and the resulting BMI — along with the categorization associated with it, such as “underweight,” “healthy weight,” “overweight” or “obese" — typically gets sent home to parents. Since only half of the participating schools send a report home, parents may not have gotten a report after a weigh-in, and Hamburger said many schools fail to properly notify parents ahead of a check. Parents can check their state’s policies on this spreadsheet.
While the CDC’s protocol for BMI measurements in schools states that a child should not be judged or have their weight announced out loud, in which case peers could overhear and potentially bully them, this promise of confidentiality is not always enforced or encouraged, according to first-hand accounts compiled by BeReal.
And after compiling data from 3,000 teachers and many administrators, Hamburger discovered that some "administrators had no idea if they were required or not required to weigh the kids.” While some teachers were using pincers to calculate body fat, others “were failing to comply because they saw it wasn’t causing any good.” One teacher told Hamburger she submits numbers that she makes up. According to her research, no one has reported losing funding, because no one is enforcing whether or not schools are in compliance with the requirement.
Parents can exempt their child from any screenings at school by simply informing the school or by using a sample opt-out letter for families provided by Sunny Side Up Nutrition and the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, or BeReal’s opt-out template. More-Love.org, an eating disorder resource for parents, has some "don't weigh me at school” cards that kids can keep in their backpacks and hand to teachers or nurses at weight checks. The school should announce weight checks and other screenings ahead of time, giving parents ample notice to inform the school if they do not want their child to participate.
“Definitely include kids in the decision to opt out,” says Hanson, stressing the importance of helping them advocate for themselves. “Perhaps even more important,” she says, “talking to kids about why you are opting them out of this body assessment creates a great opportunity to talk about things like weight stigma and to get their thoughts on the messages they're hearing about body size at school.” The problematic school practices could lead to important discussions at home.
If a parent feels very strongly that the BMI checks are wrong, they can contact their legislator to let them know. BeReal’s campaign also has a petition they can sign to show their displeasure at the ongoing practice of weighing kids at school.
"Eating disorders have been increasing dramatically since the start of the pandemic," says Hanson. "Weighing kids at school only raises the risk that kids will become focused on a number on the scale."
Plus, the social aspect of these checks has consequences, she adds. "School weigh-ins can fuel the fire of weight-based teasing and bullying, which already have devastating consequences on the mental health of young people," she says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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