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Why we shouldn’t be weighing kids in schools

BY Zali Yager

When I was in high school, many, many years ago, we were weighed publicly in health and PE classes. In the gym. In front of everyone.

Our weight was recorded by the teachers, on display for all to see, and we used these numbers to calculate our BMI and compare this on a graph against population averages.

This was a very traumatising moment for me and many, many others.

Thankfully, most teachers don’t do this any more. But sometimes, people have well-intentioned ideas about bringing back weighing in schools- for the purposes of ‘learning’ in maths or health classes, or for policy-reasons like BMI report cards. When this happens, it is often up to students, parents, other colleagues, and experts to make a case for why we shouldn’t be weighing kids in schools.

It can be time consuming to get all of the research together… so we’ve done it for you.

Please use the below whenever you need to convince someone that weighing kids in schools is not a good idea.

  1. We don’t need to convince people in larger bodies to be dissatisfied with their bodies
    Having a high BMI is actually the number one risk factor for body dissatisfaction. Research from around the world confirms that those at higher BMI’s are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, and have lower self-esteem, and Quality of Life. This is found again and again in research studies in countries as diverse as Kuwait, Spain, Portugal, Lithuania, and the USA. This tells us that those who are at a high weight are already experiencing high levels of body dissatisfaction, it doesn’t need to be induced in order to promote action.
  2. People are better off not knowing they are in certain body size categories
    When people want to weigh kids in schools, they sometimes think that we need to notify kids or parents about their weight category in order to promote action. It turns out that kids in larger bodies are better off not knowing that your weight is in the ‘O’ weight categories.
    Among adolescents in the USA, ‘weight misperceivers’- adolescents whose BMI was in the ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ range, but who thought that they were in the ‘healthy weight’ range- were more likely to engage in physical activity, consume fruit and vegetables, and meet sleep guidelines, than those who were in the overweight range, and knew it. Weight misperception seems to be protective in terms of supporting people to maintain their weight and engage in healthy behaviours. This has also been found among adolescents in Taiwan.
    When politicians and policy makers are making suggestions about BMI report cards, they should take note- The research clearly shows that when young people are told that their BMI is in the overweight or obese range, they engage in less healthy behaviours – including exercise, and longitudinal studies show that they gain more weight over time.
  3. Feeling bad about your body doesn’t help you look after it
    For a long time, there has been a misconception that we needed to try to make people feel bad about their body in order to motivate health behaviours -like physical activity, and eating a healthy diet- that are typically associated with managing body weight. And for a long time, public health messaging, diet and fitness industry advertising, marketing, and the media have taken this approach.
    However, the science is now telling us something different. There is now strong research evidence that shows that having a more positive body image is related to men and women women engaging in more healthy physical activity, healthy eating, and maintaining a body weight in the expected weight range for age and height. Adolescents who have higher levels of body appreciation are more likely to engage in health behaviours, maintain a more stable weight over time, and have higher quality of life. This was shown to be true for adolescents over a 5-year, and 10-year follow up period.
    If our goal is to improve adolescents’ eating and exercise behaviour, we are better off supporting their body image and self-esteem than encouraging weight loss. We should be teaching the next generation that healthy behaviours are for everyone, regardless of appearance, and to be critical of advertisers and governments who promote weight loss at all costs.

What does this mean?

It’s time for a radical change in our approach around weight. The current approach to media, policy, and school-based programs that focus on obesity and weight loss can have a detrimental effect on adolescents for life.

We don’t need to tell kids that they are overweight in order to ‘help them’ get healthy.
We don’t need to tell parents that their kids are overweight in order to ‘help them’ get healthy.
If we want people to be healthy, we need to focus on health- not weight!

For more unlearning what we thought we knew about weight and health- see our book, Embrace Kids.

Key Readings:

Andrew, R., Tiggemann, M., & Clark, L. (2016). Positive body image and young women’s health: Implications for sun protection, cancer screening, weight loss and alcohol consumption behaviours. Journal of Health Psychology, 21(1), 28–39.

Bucchianeri, M. M., Arikian, A. J., Hannan, P. J., Eisenberg, M. E., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Body dissatisfaction from adolescence to young adulthood: Findings from a 10-year longitudinal study. Body Image, 10(1), 1–7.

Daly, M., Sutin, A. R., & Robinson, E. (2019). Perceived weight discrimination mediates the prospective association between obesity and physiological dysregulation: Evidence from a population-based cohort. Psychological Science, 30(7), 1030–39.

Gillen, M. M. (2015). Associations between positive body image and indicators of men’s and women’s mental and physical health. Body Image, 13, 67–74.

Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Keyes, K.M., & Hasin, D.S. (2009). Associations between perceived weight discrimination and the prevalence of psychi- atric disorders in the general population. Obesity, 17(11), 2033–9.

Hunger, J. M., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2014). Weight labeling and obesity: A longi- tudinal study of girls aged 10 to 19 years. JAMA Pediatrics, 168(6), 579–80.

Major, B., Hunger, J. M., Bunyan, D. P., & Miller, C. T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 74–80.

Sonneville, K. R., Thurston, I. B., Milliren, C. E., Kamody, R. C., Gooding, H. C., & Richmond, T. K. (2016). Helpful or harmful? Prospective associ- ation between weight misperception and weight gain among overweight and obese adolescents and young adults. International Journal of Obesity, 40(2), 328–32.

Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2013). Perceived weight discrimination and obesity. PLoS one, 8(7), e70048.

Tomiyama, A. J. (2014). Weight stigma is stressful: A review of evidence for the Cyclic Obesity/Weight-Based Stigma model. Appetite, 82, 8–15.

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Embrace Collective [TEC], a DGR-status health promotion charity on a mission to help people everywhere build better body image. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, randomised controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram and her website. Find out more about The Embrace Collective on Instagram. Sign up for the EK Support Squad to receive body image resources and support for young people.
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