"No White Water BMI Restrictions for Jamboree Participants"

Just so long as you're skinny, the Scouts don't care whether you're fit.

Posted Jul 17, 2013

As regular as elections and leap year, the Boy Scouts of America, their leaders, staff and Venturing participants (both male and female) are gathering in Virginia for some adventures of a lifetime, the Jamboree. Among the 37,000 attendees will be no one with a BMI of over 40 (about a hundred pounds overweight), and those with a BMI between 32 – 39.9 will have had to submit medical proof of their fitness.

Never has BMI been so classically displayed for its arbitrariness, and rarely have I seen such exclusionariness against their own on the part of such a large organization.

Well, except among the Boy Scouts of America, of course.

As an obese person, I know all too well the shame of not fitting into life jackets, harnesses, small spaces and onto horses. The 200-pound boy might not fit such challenges of a zip line, rock climbing or hang glider harness; a kayak may be too small for him. Other of what the Scouts are calling “high-adventure activities” may be too demanding for some obese kids – mountain biking, bouldering, BMX racing – or, then again, they may not.

The fact is, a lot of so-called normal weighted kids aren’t fit for climbing a rock wall without carbiners and belay ropes. A lot of them are going to take a look at a 3,000 zip line and circle back to the end of those waiting to whiz nearly a mile over the leafy canopy of the New River Gorge National River Area.

And some fat kids are fit for these activities. They may even fit some of the equipment.

The Scouts announced their BMI requirements for this jamboree “years ago” and reports that it has been an incentive for kids and leaders to lose weight. No mention of getting fit was made. But other experts on child obesity doubt that the Jamoree was much of a carrot and that the kids who, the Scouts say, “self-selected” not to attend are now burdened with shame as they watch their fellow-Scouts fly off to Virginia.

I’ve written before about how adults should treat their overweight or obese offspring and there’s a lesson for the Boy Scouts here as well. The parts of the brain that affect self-control, decision making, emotions, and risk-taking behaviors, which we use to say no to the donuts and yes to the softball game going on down the street are still under development. “Hey, honey, if you lose 75 pounds in two years you can go to the New River Gorge National River Area Jamboree in two years” doesn’t mean squit next to a full cookie jar. The last part of the brain to reach maturation, at the age of about 25, is the prefrontal cortex, which controls organization, problem solving, foreseeing and measuring consequences, planning and strategizing, balancing short versus long term goals, impulse control and delayed gratification, among other highly complex skills that turn people into adults who can take on a fitness challenge for something a couple of years or months down the road.

Given the adolescent’s cognitive bent for thrill-seeking, damning the consequences, moderating intense emotions, shifting behavior with the change of occasion, I’m surprised that anyone will come home from Virginia without a broken leg or a good black eye from fighting over the last marshmallow.

I know some of this from my own experience. My adventure in Girl Scouting came to a screeching halt when my troupe raised money and made plans to bike from western Montana to Minnesota. At around 200 pounds, I knew I couldn’t do it and I gradually fell out of the loop. This trip took place at the end of our eighth grade year so the shame of not being able to physically make the trip wasn’t so horrible, nor was there much pressure for girls to go on and earn whatever the equivalent of an Eagle Scout is. But for boys, attaining Eagle Scout is a big bonus for college and bragging rights for life.

So I have to join in with the juvenile obesity experts as ask why the Jamboree has to be about the most dangerous and stressful activities imaginable. Why don’t the Scouts require a fitness test of all attendees and sort them out accordingly? Sure the heavier and less fit kids could do a less rugged terrain on a mountain bike or a slower three-mile hike. What if they were required to swim a mile in a day, in whatever increments it took? That’s a fantastic achievement. From my own experience of white water rafting, the fat one in the front of the raft is the one who is best able to propel the boat away from rocks and rapids. And if rafting or kayaking are not considered safe, would it kill the Scouts to teach sailing or require another distance challenge in a canoe?

I’m disappointed that, once again, Scouting is not for everyone. The tragedy of it is that an event like the Jamboree should be for everyone because it assumes that a 100-pound 12-year-old can do all the adventures planned, that the 200-pound 12-year-old can’t, and that there is no middle ground for physical challenge that could inspire the unfit or the too fat.

Because, again, that’s what happened to me when I went white water rafting in a life jacket that barely fit. I found an adrenalin rush I wanted more of, more grit not to end up in the drink than I knew I possessed, and was invaluable in keeping our raft – the only among a dozen – from crashing into rocks and capsizing.

I weighed at least 300 pounds at the time.