Dr Bronwyn Harman

School weigh ins will not solve obesity

Last week, the government announced a radical plan to curtail obesity in school-age children. I fear it is not a solution.

 

 

Last week it was revealed that Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, was considering a proposal to weigh and measure all Australian primary school children, in an attempt to reduce childhood obesity. The proposal was put forth by Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE), and was justified on the pretext of success of similar programs in the USA and the UK.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to see how the program can be deemed a success in these countries, as both are still ranked in the top ten OECD countries for obesity.

Instead of helping with the obesity issue, the practice of weigh ins at school will worsen the issue. Such a practice is body shaming: making someone feel insecure about their body, resulting in loss of resilience, well-being, and self-esteem. Media of all types – including social media – reinforces the belief that there is an ideal body type, and that this body type is the only healthy option. In addition, attempts to attain that body type, such as smoking, use of diuretics, and vomiting, are not healthy options.

However, we know that adults use these tactics in an attempt to conform to society’s ideals.

To be clear, body shaming does not affect just those who are overweight. It affects everybody who is deemed not “normal” (whatever that is). Weighing and measuring children against an unattainable ideal that is held by a small percentage of the population – those who are “too fat”, “too thin”, “too tall”, “too short” – shifts focus away from health, and onto physical attributes. That is, all children will, under this proposal, be given a benchmark of what is considered healthy based on physical characteristics. Children start to judge other children, so physical attributes are used to measure good/bad.

People use schemas to categorise other people, and individual schemas are formed by our experiences to help us make sense of the world. What this means is that we assign attributes to groups of people based on what we have seen and what we have been told. An example is “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Once we equate a standard weight and height with a measure of good health, it is hard to break this schema. The earlier we develop these schemas, the harder it is to break them.

I agree that obesity is a problem in Australia; I don’t agree that school weigh ins are the solution. Instead of body shaming, I propose we bring the emphasis back to health.

Therefore, children who equate a norm of a predetermined weight and height with good health, but fall outside that norm, are more likely to engage in behaviours in an attempt to attain that norm. The focus falls on the norm rather than health, and if they are unable to attain that norm, they will lose resilience, well-being, and self-esteem.

In addition, having a now socially sanctioned norm which is reinforced by role models (teachers) gives children ammunition in the bullying stakes. We know bullying occurs when anyone is “different”; if children are deemed to be different based on how they look – too fat, too thin, too tall, too short – and that is perceived as confirmed by role models, then those children are further targeted by bullies. This reinforces the cycle of loss of resilience, well-being, and self-esteem, and children are pushed to try more radical methods of getting the “perfect” body when traditional methods do not work fast enough in their eyes.

Anecdotally, I have heard hundreds of stories from people who were body shamed as children and who now struggle with health and self-esteem as adults. There is the man who says his mother put him on a diet and called him “chubby” as a 10-year-old, who now engages in yoyo dieting, binge eating, and is some 40kg overweight and does not exercise. One woman who at 12 and fell into the “normal” BMI was teased for being “fat” at school, and now struggles with bulimia. Another man who was called a runt by his parents admits to an unhealthy obsession with the gym and steroid abuse. If you think body shaming is not happening to children today, you are wrong. I hear stories from parents, such as the mother who despairs her 4-year-old daughter refusing food because the girls at school said she was fat, and the mother who worries about her 10-year-old son’s obsession with getting “abs” because the popular boy at school said you need them, and the father who is concerned that his 9-year-old daughter has started to stoop because she is “too tall”.

I agree that obesity is a problem in Australia; I don’t agree that school weigh ins are the solution. Instead of body shaming, I propose we bring the emphasis back to health. What we can do to help the obesity issue is firstly make fresh foods more accessible, cheaper and fresher. Secondly, time-poor adults need to be taught how to make quick but nutritious meals. Thirdly, we need to find easy ways to incorporate physical activity into our everyday lives. The health of our future adults – their physical and psychological health – is in danger; this is our chance to fix it.

 

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