April 28, 2011 at 2:36 PM ET
"Seeing the word 'obese' on paper left me feeling like the world's worst mother." It was just a simple letter from the school, reporting her daughter's Body Mass Index as part of an annual screening program. So why did it send this mom into a tailspin of doubt and worry?
It’s ridiculous that it has taken me weeks to muster the courage to write about this. Neither I nor my daughter has any reason to feel shame or anxiety about the letter that came home from the nurse’s office at her elementary school, and yet I have hesitated – considering the implications of my words more anxiously than when I wrote about my divorce.
The letter was about the school’s annual Body Mass Index (BMI) Screening Program – mandated by the state of Massachusetts. Each year, the school staff are required by law to measure each student’s height and weight and then – based on those numbers and comparison to other children of the same age and sex – a BMI percentile is assigned. My daughter’s came in at 94th percentile – one percentile point off from being classified as “obese.”
When I first read the letter, my stomach gave a little lurch. I do not put a lot of importance on physical appearance, but, in addition to health concerns, I know well the role “beauty” plays in our society – especially among school-age kids, most particularly girls. Though I know my daughter’s weight is perfect for her height (she’s very tall for her age), my mind was momentarily filled with tragic scenes of my daughter being shunned by her peers, missing out on dances because no one asked her to be their date, developing a bad body image, spiraling down into an eating disorder …
The stigma and anxiety we associate with weight issues runs deep. I can look at my daughter and see that she is healthy, active, and athletic; but seeing the word “obese” on the paper left me feeling like the world’s worst mother.
The individual report came with a form letter which stated emphatically that BMI is not a consistently accurate measurement of a child’s health. The letter explained that a child with more muscle mass may appear to have a higher BMI because the measurements do not take into consideration the difference between fat and muscle. My daughter has always been solid as a rock. She’s all muscle and hardly ever stops moving. She’s not skinny, but she’s also not even an ounce overweight.
Listen to me trying to prove my point.
The letter goes on to say, in bold type, that “only a physician can accurately determine whether an individual is underweight, overweight or obese.” Damn straight. Then why are you sending me this scary letter with clearly erroneous information? What’s the point of that? I understand that the program may catch some actual instances of unhealthy weight, but are the parents of those kids even open to hearing about the issue?
And why is this triggering so much concern, shame, and anger in me? I’ve been hiding this letter ever since it arrived in the house – like it’s a court summons, a collection notice, or porn. Even now, as I write this, I am toggling the screen each time my daughter walks in because I don’t want her to see what I’m writing. I’m scared to death that she’ll find out what the letter said and become obsessed with her weight. As it is, she’s already questioning me about which of her foods are fattening and has actually used the word “diet.” My daughter is seven years old. She should not have to worry about this stuff at her age … or ever.
My little girl should be reveling in the beauty and power of her body, not getting hung up with how it compares to the girls on TV or her classmates. And I should be confident that I’m doing right by her – giving her healthy food choices and keeping her active. I should be able to separate the inaccurate information in that letter from the reassuring reality that stands before me – jumping rope, riding her bike, dancing, running, doing cartwheels. What I see before me should be the only measurement of concern.
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