The Incredible Bravery of Fat Shaming Children

WTF are you doingLaura Cacdac got a letter from her daughter Charley’s school, letting her know that her daughter’s BMI was “high” and that “From the results of this test, it is suggested that your child’s health be examined by a physician, particularly as it relates to the problem suggested by the screening. A problem such as this that goes uncorrected or untreated can severely affect both the health and academic performance of your child.”

The school delivered the letter in such a way that Charley, all 4’2 and 60 pounds of her, was able to read it, prompting her to ask her mom “Do they think I’m fat? Is there something wrong with me?’ and then to say “If I was fat it would make me kind of sad and kind of feel bad, like I’m kind of different from everybody else.” So good news, this girl has already internalized fat hatred and body shame, and she’s only six. Way to go Palm Beach School System for becoming part of the group of  “brave organizations” to body shame young children.

A study recently came out that found that 1 out of 4 children had dieted prior to turning 7, and that 80% of American girls aged 10 have been on diets. One-third of boys and the majority of girls ages 6 to 8 wish their bodies were thinner. So 25% of kids under 7 and 80% of 10 year old girls have been, or are currently, trying to feed their bodies less food than they need to survive in the hopes that their bodies will consume themselves and become smaller. And it seems like the Palm Beach School System wants to see if they can do a little better than 25% for the under 7 set.

For those of you currently wringing your hands and asking “Won’t somebody think of the children” and gearing up to tell me about how important it is that we focus on the weight of children as a path to their health, please be assured that I am thinking of the children, I would just like to think of them, and “health” interventions foisted upon them, from an evidence-based, empathy-driven approach that considers their physical and mental health and doesn’t fuck them up.

There is literally no evidence that these programs lead to healthier or thinner kids (two different things by the way, there are healthy and unhealthy kids of all sizes.) These programs were put into place based on the current hysteria-led idea that if a thin person thinks something will make people thin, it gets treated like an evidence-based health intervention (Thanks Michelle Obama!)

When people started doing the research, it turns out that not only don’t they work, but they have serious adverse effects.

Research from the University of Minnesota found that: None of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain.

A Canadian study found that eating disorders were more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that hospitalizations of children younger than 12 years for eating disorders rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006. (Children UNDER 12) There was a 15% increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders in all ages across the same time period.

Another study found that “school based healthy-living programs”  had some pretty big problems.  It turns out that these were and are being instituted in lots of schools, despite the fact that there is almost no research on the effectiveness of these programs or any inadvertent harmful effects on children’s mental health. This study found that these programs are actually triggering eating disorders in kids.  Dr. Leora Pinhas said “The programs present this idea that weight loss is good, that only thin is healthy…We live in a culture that stigmatizes fat people, and we’ve turned it into this kind of moralistic health thing.”

I also can’t find any research that discusses the impact that these programs have on the reality of kids and growth spurts – they gain weight, then grow, gain weight, then grow. At 6 years old, it’s pretty likely that Charley has some growing to do. If her school’s Public Weigh In and Body Shame Day falls during weight gain for a growth spurt, and everyone freaks out and tries to get her to lose weight, what does that mean for her growth?

There is no reason to expose kids to these risks because there is absolutely nothing that can be accomplished by singling out and shaming supposedly “fat” kids that couldn’t be accomplished by a program focused on health for kids of all sizes. Not just school lunches that are delicious, but cooking skills, PE classes with lots of options so that they are fun for kids even if they don’t enjoy having balls hurled at them or hoping that the popular athletic kid doesn’t pick them last for a sport they don’t enjoy playing. And since there’s no evidence that suggests that making kids hate or be ashamed of their bodies increases the likelihood that they’ll take care of them, how about teaching kids to respect and appreciate bodies of all shapes and sizes, including their own? How about not making exercise something that is either punishment or preventative for having a body that is “too big” and instead is something that kids can have a chance to actually enjoy? And how about taking all the OMGDEATHFATKIDS childhood obesity money and putting it towards removing barriers to health like oppression and poverty. That would truly be brave.

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39 thoughts on “The Incredible Bravery of Fat Shaming Children

  1. “A Canadian study found that eating disorders were more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in kids.”

    -This is cause kids with eating disorders can have type 2 diabetes as well, so it is definitely way more likely that an eating disorder will happen… I think these yahoo’s think that someone type 2 diabetes and eating disorders are opposite extremes…. Idiots.

    I was one of those fat-shamed kids- and it led to years of disordered eating that went from bulimia to just plain binging…. Which then led to type 2…. the only thing those programs are likely to create is disordered eating AND diabetes….

    There is nothing like teaching a child to hate their bodies, not trust their own instincts, and developed a twisted relationship with food and exercise that creates WAY more issues than it fixes….

  2. And people wonder why home-schooling is on the rise.

    Not only does a child who is in any way different from the accepted standard have to deal with harassment from other kids, they have to deal with harassment from the teachers and administration of the schools.

    1. And when you homeschool, you get this shit from the doctors. My daughter was quite underweight (because she had a serious thyroid issue they never bothered to figure out until many years later) and the pressure from the pediatrician and GP to have her eat more and gain weight was ridiculous. They had her eating way more than she was comfortable with. Now that her thyroid is working, guess what’s happened. Just go ahead and guess. Her appetite is still working on the assumption that her body can burn off 3000 calories per day.

      1. Seems like doctors can’t seem to accept that humans (and plants and animals) come in all different shapes and sizes. I’ve heard of this overfeeding the thin kids/adults when they are in the “underweight” category, as this would magically make them better. But some have no illness at the low weight.

        I’m so sorry and shocked to learn this about what happened to your daughter.

  3. I hated gym class because I was unathletic and was treated badly by other students because of it. Plus, once I hit the age where you had to change for gym, I was already deeply insecure about my body (started around seven or so for me, too, even though I wasn’t even chubby–let alone fat–until junior high or so), so there was yet another layer of shame and dread and misery around the whole P.E. experience for me. But the days where we could go out and walk the track or use the weight room were perfect. I still got exercise without being forced to do things I knew I’d never be good at (and didn’t particularly want to be good at). Plus I could also make it a social experience with the people I actually wanted to hang out with, and that *always* helps me with stuff like that. I have long suspected that if I’d been presented from an early age with a variety of exercise options that didn’t involve competitive sports that I may have found something I love and wanted to continue doing, and might be in better physical condition* as an adult. Not to mention more coordinated, and I may have learned a skill.

    *Not to be confused with a statement like “I wouldn’t be fat”. I am in somewhat poor physical condition right now, but it’s from years of being mostly sedentary, not my fatness, and genetics suggests I’d still be on the chubby side, if not outright fat, even if/when I get my strength and flexibility to where I’d like it to be.

    1. I was the scrawny, unathletic runt that hated gym class. I was just talking with a coworker about this, and commenting that things would have been so much better if we had been offered various activity options for exercise, rather than being forced into participating in team sports (which most of us never participate in again after graduating school, and hence which do not help us in developing heathy activity habits for our adult lives), and being subjected to the ridicule and scorn of other students who were upset that we weren’t adding anything to their precious team.

      If gym class had been something with actual FUN options for those of us who weren’t athletic, my guess is more of us would have invested much more of ourselves in the class, instead of looking forward to getting out of it.

      1. My absolute favorite part of PE was folkdance. The last time we had that was second grade.

        Honestly, if they just completely cut out team sports during school hours, I don’t think anything bad would happen. Use PE to get the kids’ blood moving in non-if-you-can’t-do-this-then-you-are-useless ways and add water safety, some balance exercises, safe stretching, and work on coordination. Maybe a little basic yoga for breathing control and relaxation.

        1. In grade 10, there were 2 units that everyone had to take: swimming and dancing. It became evident to the teachers that I couldn’t swim when I nearly drowned during a diving station (this was supposed to be my first station on the 6 rotations). I was allowed to play games for the rest of the time (the games station in the shallow end of the pool). I absolutely loved the dancing part, as we learned foxtrot, and waltz, in addition to jive.

          1. I Actually Went To Summerschool For Failing Gym. The Whole Social Pressure Of Gym Class Was Too Much For My Supremely Shy And Depressive Self. If There Was Other Options Than One Group Gym Activity I Would Have Done It. Preferably By Myself Or People I Felt Comfortable With

          2. And they never helped you get better, did they?

            Imagine the annual torment of Failing to Climb the Stupid Rope. What if it had gone like this:

            KID: *fails to climb stupid rope*
            TEACHER: *sends kids who successfully climbed the stupid rope to the other end of the gym to play basketball or something* OK, group of kids who failed to climb the stupid rope. *puts up chart* These are the muscles you need to strengthen in order to climb the stupid rope. Let’s learn the names now. *does patient and non-contemptuous drill on names of muscles* Here are some exercises you can do in order to strengthen these muscles. You over there, you’re going to help me demonstrate. *patiently and kindly corrects form* OK, do X sets and X reps, then walk it off for a few minutes. *politely and non-jerk-facedly hands out checksheets* Do X sets and X reps at an interval of X days until this sheet is full, then bring it back to me and we’ll have you try the rope again.

            Instead, of course, it usually goes like this:

            KID: *fails to climb the stupid rope*
            TEACHER: *shouts in encouragement, scorn, or encouragement followed by scorn*
            KIDS WHO COULD CLIMB THE STUPID ROPE: *laugh contemptuously at kids who couldn’t*
            CLASS: *goes on, kids who couldn’t climb the stupid rope having learned nothing at all, except that gym class is a torment they will be happy to leave behind as soon as they possibly can*

  4. I did a huge research paper last year on childhood eating issues, and the Minnesota study Ragen refers to should be enough to shut down any further discussion on weight interventions. Kids that dieted, either through healthy weight control methods (whatever those are) or unhealthy methods gained weight, period. The study was not over a couple of months, but covered several years.

    Further, even if you think BMI is useful tool for measuring (I do not), the CDC states that half the kids in the overweight category do not have an unhealthy amount of body fat, thus BMI should not be used alone to determine whether a child is overweight, but very, very rarely are further measurements taken.

    Ugh, this topic makes me so furious. Thank you, Ragen, for not letting it go away.

  5. I was one of those fat children who was subjugated to constant “intervention” for my weight. Guess what? The programs desiged to eliminate me as a fat person by either making me thin or dead failed to do either. I am still fat and I am still alive.

  6. Ragen, I agree with your entire assessment, but the part that jumped out at me was “A problem such as this that goes uncorrected or untreated can severely affect both the health AND ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE of your child”.

    I realize I’m just anecdotal evidence, but my fat ass kept on graduating with honors and eventually earned my juris doctorate in law school. What in the actual hell does “fat” have to do with “academic performance”?!?!

    I mean, I can see where being fat-shamed by your school before you ever hit first grade could affect your academic performance. And I can absolutely see where having to deal with an ED could affect your academic performance. But the only “uncorrected, untreated problem” I see here that’s capable of affecting academic performance is a school that wants to terrorize a still-growing six-year-old.

    1. Are they just straight up telling kids that no matter how well they do in their classes, they’ll be passed over for awards and scholarships if they’re fat?

      1. You kind of can’t help but take it that way. Since there’s absolutely no scientific basis that any measure of intellectual ability is based on weight, what else can it mean besides, “we’re going to make sure fat kids are academically damaged until they lose weight”?

        1. If being a certain weight or ability were the sole criteria for awards and academic acheivement, then my friend who had (and died from) Acute Muscular Dystrophy shouldn’t have been on the honour society in high school, and shouldn’t have been accepted for the Scholar’s Advantage program at the uni. He was accepted in the management program when he died. There was a huge memorial put on by the school.

    2. That jumped out at me, too, and the only conclusion I could draw that didn’t sound like they were suggesting fat people are stupid was that they were talking about how other kids treat the fat ones. Which seems like a problem with THOSE kids (and the school), to me, and not at all the responsibility of the bullied child.

      1. I assumed this was a form letter designed to be usable for ANY “health screening” the school may do. It sounded very much like form letters I’ve gotten from doctors that say “The results of your [blank] are in” and then go on to list possible implications, some of which are completely implausible for the particular test.

        I don’t know if schools do screen for anything other than BMI these days (I don’t have kids so it’s a long time since I’ve had any contact with schools). But if they’re doing tests for various different health conditions, then I can see an all-purpose form letter that would cover conditions that could affect academic performance. (Of course, BMI isn’t a health condition and shouldn’t be screened for, but I’m just talking about the wording of the form here.)

    3. Yep, take away my 99th percentile test scores & my masters degree, I was a fat kid. I’m also the mom of 3 supposedly fat kids. The “thinnest” and the “fattest” were in gifted programs in school, 2 finished high school with 3.9 averages (darned that art class!), and all are college graduates.

  7. Also, now that I’ve read the Yahoo article linked to above, I’m ticked at the “parenting expert” that suggested that having Charley read the letter on TV, publicly standing up for herself and other kids against the school, was somehow a bad thing. Aaarrgghh.

  8. I was fat shamed as a child starting at age 10, for being the shockingly obese size of 4’10” and…wait for it…90 lbs. (Seeing as I was past puberty at the time and physically an adult, I don’t think this is even overweight. But I looked different from the other kids who had not gone through puberty yet, so my body MUST have been wrong, right?)

    Anyway, I was told to watch my diet and stop eating fatty foods. This was the beginning of the end as I began sneaking pizza and candy bars at some times, and starving myself at other times, and definitely gained a lot of weight.

    I always stayed active and tried to eat well, but then without fail would find myself face down in a pint of ice cream or bag of chocolate covered nuts, eating until I was sick. I was pretty sure i had binge eating disorder and was out of control and disgusting. This continued for 27 years until I read a book called “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies” which taught me how to eat what my body wanted whenever I was hungry. BOOM! The cravings stopped pretty much instantly. The only times I did binge after that, were because I got “too busy” to feed myself an actual meal, then got hungry and ate whatever was available.

    Then I realized that was exactly what I had been doing for 27 years. Undernourishing myself because I thought I was a bad fatty, then going on crazy feeding frenzies, not from emotions or boredom but because I was freaking hungry and needed sustenance…you know, just like everyone else on the planet!

    I don’t know if the lasting damage to my body from all this disordered eating, started when well-meaning authority figures decided they knew better than me what I should eat and how I should look, will ever be undone. So it pisses me off to no end to see that we as a nation have stepped up our efforts in giving kids eating disorders. Kids (and a lot of adults for that matter) don’t understand how to nourish and care for their bodies, but they do understand when they get the message that they are not enough, that something is wrong with them, and they have to fix themselves, at any cost, to get social approval. With all due respect, fuck that shit.

    1. Same here :-/

      I was a strong but clumsy kid (bad eyesight corrected only when I was nearly 9), with the shape to match. Very active, and hungry as a wolf. Puberty hit at 12, label “fatty” pretty much a day after my 13th birthday, when I had C-cups and was 5’7″ and 130 lbs. Restricting and binging (and growing wider but not taller) went on until I left home age 18.

      I stopped restricting the day I left home, but I only got the fear of there not being enough food and better eat it while you have it out of my system when I was 40. Now binges only happen when I am severely stressed.

      Still trying to sort out why they label normal weight kids or physically adult teenagers as fat. I heard that in the US they are still using the 1950s growth charts? But in Germany, when I was kid, they didn’t even pretend to bow to the god of numbers, they just saw a curvy teen and were disgusted.

  9. I can’t help but wonder what this sort of crap will do to the nutritional needs of the kids. Ragen already pointed out that kids put on weight before a growth spurt. I know developing brains need fats and developing bones desperately need calcium.

    Six? SIX??? That is NOT the time to worry about a kid’s weight. Worry that they are getting a variety of foods to eat. Worry that they are being picked on. Worry that they are safe. Maybe worry that they spend to much time on the computer or watching TV. Worry that they are learning to read and other basic stuff.

    I just want to go punch people now.

  10. I seem to remember reading in a somewhat polemic source that kids who do not receive sufficient food to grow tall instead tend to grow wide — missing their growth spurts. If only I could find it again.

    Also: Some people need to be repeatedly slapped with a dead halibut. *fumes*

    1. That makes sense. You start to gain weight for a future spurt, but then diet and no spurt happens. The weight doesn’t have anywhere to “go” as it’s not being used for its intended purpose.

  11. The school officials aren’t just incredibly “brave” they are incredibly stupid as well. They are not even able to calculate the very flawed BMI measure correctly! Telling the parent of a child of that height, weight,and age that the child is fat and has a high BMI to prove it seemed off to me. Especially since when I was a short for my age 11 year old 6th grader in the Spring of the 1978-1979 school year my pediatrician expressed great concern that at 4’5 or so and 70 pounds I was too thin! So I checked it myself using online kid BMI calculators for a 4’2″ girl age just turned 6, age 6 and 6 months and about to turn 7 in a day. Used multiple calculators to do so. And all of them said a 6 year old 4’2″ 60 pound girl is normal and NOT overweight. Just taller and bigger than most kids of similar age.

    1. The article I read about this pointed out exactly that. The chart they were citing to proclaim her overweight lists her as normal!

  12. I was lucky enough to have a nutrition consultant (paid for with our tax dollars because I was on welfare at the time) during my pregnancy and for the first three years after birth. This was separate from the obstetrician. Best investment the state ever made in me. She coached me through gestational diabetes and never once shamed me for being a large woman. She encouraged me to exercise as did the pre-natal prep coaches. She was very thorough explaining how children’s nutrition is different from adults and because of the growth timing you describe, children’s nutrients should not be restricted, especially fats and proteins, to offer a wide variety of foods, and to let them eat freely. Most children “self-regulate” that is, they stop eating when they are full. Then they will run around and burn it all off and need to do it all over again in two hours. My son is a very healthy young man at 22 years old who has rarely seen a doctor other than well-baby and camp check-ups and rarely had to have antibiotics. He’s finally starting to have some tooth decay because he is eating more sugar, he understands all the real science of how sugar works in the body on teeth damaging them from the inside and out, but it’s his choice. “Common” knowledge has so much wrong about food, eating, and movement. Thank you for your continued sharing. Maybe awareness will make the stigma change in our lifetime.

  13. If I were the Mom, I’d have just torn up the letter- on camera and with Charley watching. Or, let Charley tear it up. No comment needed.

  14. Yep, I was yet another one of those kids who was subjected to multiple ‘interventions’ re: my weight. Guess what? They didn’t work. I was a chubby kid, and am now a fat adult.
    Even my experience with “weight loss at any means” – my father buying me diet pills (when I was too young to legally purchase them myself) didn’t work…imagine that.

    Thanks Ragen for bringing this up again and keeping it out there where hopefully more people will see it. I am going to post this everywhere I can think of.

  15. This really breaks my heart since I was the fat kid. I went through puberty at 10, and by the time I was 13 I looked like a grown woman. I was 5’2″ and 140 pounds. Not skinny, but I was curvy (DD bra). From 10 years old on, I was trying to lose weight. I got called fat all the time. I was 5 feet and 110 pounds. I can’t help but wonder if I’d have been taller if I hadn’t done so much dieting. I only grew to 5’3.
    Gym was the worst and a big reason I hate exercise today. I was ways the kid picked last for the team and hit by the stupid dodgeball.
    I have a 4 year old boy and if he experiences this crap at school I will be homeschooling. He’s lucky to be at a “normal” weight for his height right now. I hate to think what will happen if that changes. This is a very sore subject with me and I dare a school to ever send me a letter like that!

    1. You have similar to me, I am sure that, after reading these comments, that I would be 6-7 inches taller, just like all the other women in my family.

  16. Thank you for writing this!! These shoddy BMI “screenings” disguised as “health screenings to monitor student health” or whatever other BS they’re trying to throw at us, are dangerous, deadly, disgusting and detrimental to physical, mental and emotional health they claim to be protecting.
    Whenever I think back to BMI measurement day in school, it always strikes me as a turning point in my eating disorder (from binge eating to restricting and purging). Now that I am on my way to recovery, I can fully see just how damaging these BMI “screenings” are to our children…because that’s what they are, young children. When I was Charley’s age, I knew I was fat. I did not need my school weighing me and sending me a letter; the students reminded me every day just how fat I was. Weight discussions should be between the child, their parent(s)/guardian, and their pediatrician.
    I wrote about this too over on my blog a few years back…my personal experience with it anyway. I’m so sorry kids keep having to go through this.
    Thank you for putting your voice out there. The world needs more of you!

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