“Fat Letters” Are Cruel to Kids

Helping overweight children doesn’t require humiliating “fat letters”

Posted Nov 01, 2013

A client of mine recently told me that in her daughter’s elementary school this year, children will be lined up and publicly weighed during gym class, then school officials will send letters to parents of children who are determined to be obese—so-called “fat letters.” 

Who in the world thought this would be a good idea? Apparently someone who knows nothing about body dissatisfaction or discrimination against fat people or even how people change!  

In our appearance-obsessed culture, overweight children are acutely aware that their bodies don’t measure up to cultural ideals. Even children who are not overweight often struggle with “feeling fat.” 42% of girls in first through third grade report that they want to be thinner. Over 80% of ten-year-old girls say they are afraid of being fat. Many eight-year-olds have tried dieting. Prejudice against fat people begins as early as preschool, when children assign more negative traits to pictures of overweight children and report that they are less likely to choose them as playmates. 

So, imagine what it would be like for overweight children standing in that gymnasium, waiting to be weighed, wondering if classmates will see or hear their weight measurement and ridicule them, worrying about whether school staff will judge them obese and how their parents will respond… 

“Fat letters” assume that obesity is caused by personal weakness and a lack of self-discipline and that shame will motivate children to lose weight. But obesity is a complicated issue, with genetic and environmental contributions on top of individual behavior. Also, when children feel ashamed of their weight, they’re likely to respond with either desperate and unhealthy attempts to lose weight (such as skipping meals, purging, or using laxatives) or just giving up and overeating more. 

Rather than shame, what overweight children need to start making healthier choices is compassion, education, hope, support, and realistic plans. 

If schools really want to help fight obesity, rather than humiliating overweight children, they can: - Offer education to all children and families about healthy nutrition, emphasizing eating nutrient-dense foods, while also recognizing that eating provides pleasure as well as fuel for the body. This could be done in a fun atmosphere of trying healthy recipes without moralistic labeling of foods as “good” or “bad.”  

- Acknowledge that becoming physically fit is difficult—many adults struggle with this! Help children develop realistic but hopeful expectations by educating them about how long it takes to become fit, how drastic dieting tends to backfire, and how little changes can make a big difference over time. Provide ongoing support and encouragement for continuing healthy changes rather than one-shot criticism. 

- Offer fitness programs that encourage all students—not just athletes—to get moving. These could include walking clubs or dance, yoga, or tai chi classes. The emphasis should be on getting stronger and enjoying using their bodies rather than losing weight. 

- Encourage family involvement in healthy eating and exercise. Kids feel less blamed and more supported when their whole family is involved in making healthy choices. Children who eat meals with their families tend to have better nutrition. Having appealing healthy food readily available also makes it easier for kids to eat well. 

- Promote acceptance of body diversity. Children who come from families with a stocky build will never be willowy, no matter what they do, and that’s absolutely fine. The emphasis should be on being healthy, active, and strong rather than fitting a particular body ideal. Discriminating against certain body types should be as unacceptable as discriminating against certain races or religions. 


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. Google+ Twitter: psychauthormom 

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com 

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Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission
Source: Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission

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For further reading: 

The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. Eating Disorder Statistics.http://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/counseling/Eating_Disorder_Statistics.pdf 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Executive Summary: Body Mass Index Measurement in Schools. http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/obesity/BMI/pdf/BMI_execsumm.pdf 

Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208. 

Heron, K. E., Smyth, J. M., Akano, E., Wonderlich, S. A. (Jan-Mar 2013). Assessing body image in young children: A preliminary study of racial and developmental differencesSage Open, 3. 

Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 23-37. 

Musher-Eizenman, D. R., Houb, S. C. Miller, A. B., Goldstein, S. E., & Edwards-Leeper, L. (2003). Body size stigmatization in preschool children: The role of control attributions. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 29, 613-620. 

Silverman, R. J. A. (2010). Good Girls Don’t Get Fat. The Stonesong Press. Smolak, L. (2004). Body image in children and adolescents: Where do we go from here? Body Image, 1, 15-28. 

Stice E. & Shaw, H. E. (2002). Role of body dissatisfaction in the onset and maintenance of eating pathology: A synthesis of research findings. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53, 985-993. 

Yager, Z., Diedrichs, P. C., Ricciardelli, L. A., & Halliwell, E. (2013). What works in secondary schools? A systematic review of classroom-based body image programs. Body Image, 10, 271-281.