Arkansas' BMI Report Cards Just Shame Students

by Lauren Holter

Being a body-positive, confident teenager is hard enough without your school making your weight its business. At my middle school in rural Arkansas, everyone was weighed and measured so that the school could send our parents a "body mass index (B.M.I.) report card" stating whether we were underweight, overweight, or a "normal" weight. Of course, as a teen, everyone was already self-conscious about their bodies, and we definitely didn't need the school to reaffirm our insecurities about our weight. The intended purpose of the B.M.I. reports was to help families become healthier (healthier in the way that the school administrators perceived health, anyway). But a new study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health shows that the statewide program, which was enacted by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (who's now running for president), was not very effective. The only thing the B.M.I. report cards did was make teens feel worse about their bodies.

After our parents got the letters in the mail describing our weight "issues," my classmates immediately began asking each other what their score was. I had a some health issues in middle school and was extremely skinny, to the point where teachers pulled me aside to ask if I had an eating disorder (which is problematic in itself), so I wasn't exactly surprised when my B.M.I. report said that I was nearly in the "underweight" classification. However, I was less than thrilled to tell people my score and encourage their unnecessary fears that I had an eating disorder and their prodding me to eat more food at lunch.

On the other end of the spectrum, I had friends who had always been self-conscious about their weight, and getting a score closer to "overweight" on the B.M.I. scale only worsened their self-image. These reports essentially either told girls that their body was "normal" or that they needed to change it, and encouraged them to to compare their bodies to others, as if there's only one correct way to look and be healthy. Even girls who fell within the "normal" range, like myself, started comparing their scores with other girls', down to decimal points. A B.M.I. calculation can possibly be useful when it's given by a doctor and discussed in terms of larger constructs of health and more legitimate factors than weight. But in my experience, a school administering annual weigh-ins for every student only fueled gossip, in my experience.

Arkansas has high rates of childhood obesity — nearly 20 percent — so Huckabee signed a law in 2003 making Arkansas the first state to start a school-based program involving annual weigh-ins and reports sent home to parents. Now, 25 states weigh students to track obesity rates (despite the fact that obesity in and of itself isn't really a disease, and has been deemed a "crude metric" for analyzing health by more than one medical professional), and then send the results to parents. Proponents of the report card system say that the overall "health" message of the letters was strong, and was reinforced with supplemental efforts like banning vending machines, increasing physical education classes, and limiting high-calorie snacks. But the study found that obesity rates haven't changed.

The study, authored by University of California professor Kevin A. Gee, concluded that the health of Arkansas children who continued to be weighed annually throughout high school didn't change. Mary T. Story, an expert on adolescent obesity at Duke University, told The New York Times: "There is so much stigma with being overweight, and children in adolescence are particularly sensitive to that. In some schools, there is no privacy screen when they’re being weighed, and the process is embarrassing for them."

Luckily, I moved away after ninth grade and was no longer subjected to the annual weigh-ins and subsequent ridicule, but many girls had to endure this throughout high school. If someone doesn't feel comfortable discussing their weight with their school administrators and classmates, they shouldn't have to. That's a conversation meant for the doctor's office or a safe space in which the individual feels comfortable discussing these matters. Part of teaching teenage girls to be healthy is teaching them to love their bodies, and not constantly compare themselves to others — to focus on their mental health just as much as their physical health. "B.M.I report cards" are unhelpful, unnecessary, and only work to shame girls into low self-esteem.

Images: Lauren Holter (4)