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No More Fat Letters for Kids

Photograph by Getty Images

Apparently, Americans love a good handwritten letter cordially pointing to the fact that fat kids are fat. A North Dakota neighbor has stirred the candy pot with her plan to pass out letters about healthy eating—but only for the chubby trick-or-treaters.

And then there are the nine states that, as a part of their educational mission, send letters home informing parents which of their kids is fat.

RELATED: Schools Sending "Obese Kid" Letters to Parents

The letters are supposed to, um, help the child? But like the wicked witch of the North Dakota's idea, plenty of people believe it's only going to hurt.

In some places, love of the fat letter is waning. Leaders in Massachusetts's state Public Health Council recently voted, 10-1, to drop the letters. The council said the letters, which started going home in 2009, appeared to not have the intended effect of fewer overweight and obese kids in their schools. In 2012, one-fourth of all teens in that state were considered overweight or obese.

Schools need to stick to what is in their control regarding education and students.

Some vocal opponents to the letters include those who argued the letters could lead kids toward disordered eating. Others complained that the Body Mass Index used to determine which category a child falls into—normal, overweight, obese—is an inaccurate conclusion about a child's health. Parents also had privacy concerns and wanted to limit who could access this information and for what reasons.

I agree with all those reasons to oppose schools sending letters home. I'm also opposed to schools taking height and weight measurements in the first place. I think this data collection is frequently done with a complete lack of privacy for the children. (How many adults can remember getting weighed at school?) Moreover, kids aren't ever given much context in which to understand these numbers. What do they mean? Why are they important? If it's about health—why only the numbers and no surveys about, say, what the child eats in a typical week?

I think at certain ages, these numbers become social statuses, too. Things of envy. Something to share with pride or to hide with shame. In terms of a BMI, the label is adult-endorsed. Overweight = bad. When kids get their hands on these numbers, they've got their own labels and a hierarchy into which the label gets plugged.

RELATED: The School Lunch Myth

Here's the thing: Schools need to stick to what is in their control regarding education and students. Serve healthy breakfasts and lunches, sell healthy snacks. Stop believing that juice and sports drinks are anything but drinkable diabetes. Talk about the science of nutrition. Encourage teachers to model healthy eating. Conduct parent education nights if they want to bring parents into the fold. Look at the entire thing as a healthy community enterprise.

But schools should stop pointing at individuals, stop shining a spotlight on 25 percent of the kids who—and this is just a guess—already know that they're fat.

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