Recent columns in the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch sparked this post. These particular columns were on the topic of Ohio Senator Eric Kearney’s recent report on the findings compiled as a result of the passing of Senate Bill 210 (the Healthy Choices for Healthy Children Act) in September of 2010. This bill requires all school districts in the state of Ohio to report the BMI findings of students in kindergarten, third, fifth and ninth grades.
To understand my viewpoint on this recent publication, I must first take you back to the year 2002– my ninth grade year. I had just finished the agonizing ritual of dressing out in the locker room for my gym class, and was sitting in the middle of our enormous yet aging gym while the overhead florescent lights flickered ominously. It’s not that we didn’t have money to replace the lights either; I’m convinced the whole thing was a sick experiment in the psychology of gym class on teenagers. Anyway, as our gym teachers walked out of the locker rooms and announced that we were dividing the class into boys and girls, I knew something unpleasant was imminent. While the guys were shepherded into a remote corner of the gym, we girls were lead down the hallway to the wrestling room like sacrificial lambs to slaughter.
As we were lead into the room the first thing I notice is the red padded walls emblazed with our school logo, followed closely by what was set up by each of those walls. Along the first wall was a scale; the kind where you have to move the weights over the bar, get it to balance, and wait anxiously for it all to be over. Affixed to the second padded wall was a measuring tape. Along the third wall was a table containing a caliper and what appeared to be a steering wheel for a Fischer-Price-sized car. We were lined up along the fourth wall. That’s when I was dealt a devastating blow; today was BMI day. Glorious. At this time I already knew I was medically obese, I knew I was the largest girl in my class, I knew I was teased relentlessly for my weight, and I knew today would be no exception. What I did not know was that I was already in the thick of an eating disorder. First up, the scale. We went up one by one in alphabetical order. We were weighed, the numbers announced aloud to a class of silent girls each eagerly waiting to hear the weight of their classmates, and were expected to do this without complaint. I don’t remember my name being called, walking up there, hearing the number or her writing it on the clipboard. What I do remember is the feeling of complete degradation and shame during the entire process. Next, we were all lead to the tape measure on the wall. This portion of the humiliation was fine; as most girls in my class were of similar height to myself. Apparently 5’2” is a popular height among Midwestern adolescents. Again, one by one, we were measured, the number called aloud and written on the clip board.
Third came the caliper and steering wheel (which turned out to be an instrument that somehow measures BMI through electrodes you touch on the wheel) tests. As before, we approached the table one by one, did the test, and had the numbers announced to the class before being recorded on the clipboard. Again, the feeling of indignity returned as she grabbed my arm and placed it between the caliper points. The number placed me off the chart she had created. Anything I had felt about myself that was positive melted away as the girls in my class laughed at the fact that a new category was created solely for me. Somehow I made it through the class, through high school, through college and after. However, this day in class ten years ago is never far from my subconscious. I feel that it, along with a variety of other factors, was a major trigger in my later development of anorexia/bulimia, depression, self-mutilating behaviors, and a general sense of feeling lesser than those around me.
I write this story not as a “feel sorry for me” story, but as a cautionary and all-too-true account of what is happening to children around the state every day. Each time these tests are conducted, children face unnecessary shame and humiliation based upon what the state perceives they should weigh. They are told by trusted teachers, administrators, counselors, whomever, that they don’t fit what society thinks a child of their age and height should be. They compare their numbers to those in their class; whether to brag or to bring embarrassment to those around them. They wear their BMI numbers like Hawthorne’s scarlet letter; whether they intend to or not, whether the testing was conducted privately or in front of the class, whether they’re proud of it or not. Every day children are subjected to the message that they don’t fit in or that they are not good enough; recording and reporting their BMI only strengthens these negative messages.
Now, back to Senator Kearney and his wonderful (read: ANY antonym for wonderful) report. Under the HCHC Act, EVERY school district in Ohio is required to report annually on the BMIs for kindergarten, third, fifth and ninth graders. However, only 244 districts actually reported; with 686 others either applying for a waiver or opting not to conduct the screenings altogether. Only 75% of counties in Ohio reported results; even if it was only one district in the whole county, it was recorded as part of the 75%. Almost 92,000 students were screened. The results concluded that in every grade level, between 59 and 67% of students were at a healthy weight; with the remaining percentages split between underweight, overweight and obese. Because of how the categories are arranged, approximately 33% of students in each grade fell into the latter two categories; results that shocked and appalled Senator Kearney. He is calling for the Ohio Department of Health to become further involved in the BMI screening process as a means to decrease the skyrocketing incidences of childhood obesity by reforming cafeteria food, increasing the amount of physical activity in school, and making BMI screening MANDATORY. While I agree that students need healthier food in the cafeteria and more time spent engaging in physical activity, I do not agree that children need to take part in the shaming BMI screenings as part of a mandatory school curriculum. In fact, BMI is not even the most accurate measure of health or obesity. According to BMI measuring techniques there are some current Olympic athletes that fall into the “obese” category despite their peak physical health; as BMI fails to take into account a person’s muscle mass. Children and parents do not need to take part in BMI screenings at school to determine their student’s level of health. Parents and doctors can screen a child’s health in a protected, private and non-judgmental environment—not a school. I know that I am just one person, and that I cannot overturn this senate bill myself, but I do know that I can do everything in my power to ensure that my future students do not face the same fate that I did as a result of these discouraging BMI screenings. I wish, for once, the state would consider a student’s mental health when making decisions related to their physical health.