September 16th, 2011

Who gave you permission to weigh my child?

Over the last few weeks there have been a few articles in the papers about schools in the UK weighing pupils as part of an “anti-obesity” drive. The coverage has been really good with an interesting debate taking place, from the people saying this is a healthy thing for kids in schools, to the parents and campaigners who say it is an awful practice and it should be stopped. Most of these articles have posed a question; does this practice encourage, or raise the risk of a child developing an eating disorder? Well this is my opinion……

Firstly I can’t say I agree with the practice of school weigh in’s as it is currently conducted, as I have been hearing from a friend of mine who’s child was recently weighed in school and I was shocked when her child sat there telling us how they did it in a big line in an assembly hall, so everyone else can see. My friend was never told that this was going to happen at school and consent was never sought. Then a few weeks later she receives a letter telling her that her child is overweight.

Now, I feel this to be of importance here, the people that carry out these weighing sessions are not medical professionals all the time and often do not know about different body types, the different ways of carrying weight and yet again rely on the ever unreliable height vs weight. My friends child has quite a big frame, is very strong, but more built and developed, with really no fat on him, he is simply a well-built kid. So the fact he is healthier than probably a good few kids in that class is of no significance, in the eyes of the school he is overweight.

They told him this and then send a letter to his mother, who was furious to say the least. Going through her mind is the fact that she knows he is fine, eats a balanced healthy diet and exercises but a school feel they have the authority to tell her and her child that he is in fact overweight. The saddest thing was that he started questioning what they told him and to hear the words “Mummy am I fat” from him was really quite cutting. Thanks to the wonderful school weigh in, he now feels he needs to diet, at nine years old.

 This practice exposes young people to the concept of weight awareness and diet talk at a young age in primary school, but on the flip side severe obesity isn’t good for anyone and the health effects on a young child are devastating. We also have to accept the fact that childhood obesity is an issue, but also of concern are eating disorders in young people and kids feeling more insecure about their bodies than ever before.

It also needs to be noted that some parents will simply let their children eat what they want, become obese and not doing anything about it and for the sake of a child’s health it is a good thing that someone is trying to intervene. So to me this is becoming a bit of a juggling act, Obesity is an issue, but so is body image and eating disorders, so they all need to be tackled in a way that minimises risk. I wouldn’t say for a second that weighing children is a cause of eating disorders, but, it can’t be helpful for self-esteem and could exacerbate an existing eating problem. You could then on the other hand argue that obesity in children is sometimes the result of eating disorders. A child is upset, angry, playing up and food is used as a way of controlling that, food could then become a coping mechanism from a young age, which is likely to be more heavily relied on as time goes on.

Now we see the dilemma, I know of a few horror stories from parents who have had their kids weighed, like my friend told me, but at the same time, there is a clear need in some circumstances for parents and kids to be educated and made aware of the health risks of obesity and the importance of living healthily, while enjoying all that want to enjoy. It seems that we teach an all or nothing approach, when we could teach kids that you can enjoy all you want, be sensible and still be healthy, when instead we seem to teach them that everything is a danger, when it really isn’t.

As for weigh in’s, I still think the way they are done is scary and not helpful to a child’s personal development, but there is a need on both sides, to be aware of body confidence and eating disorders and also the issue of obesity.  One weigh in won’t cause a lifelong eating disorder, but it also won’t prevent obesity. We need a robust, educational approach, as both issues are just as important.