Tuesday, April 16, 2013

BMI In Schools: Educating Children in Self-Loathing, Not Health

Image ©Nazareth College
“Weighing In” by Nazareth College

I don’t know how, as a pediatrician, mother, and body politics activist, I missed it all this time. But, I recently learned something that rocked my world in an avalanche of outrage and horror.
I was preparing to give a talk at The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, on a panel called “Ferocious BMI! Women Artists and the Body.”  There I was, before the panel, innocently having a coffee with a dear friend, when I learned something shocking about her child’s otherwise progressive school: that they do yearly BMI (body mass index) measurements on their students.

Let me just clarify. These people are putting their students on scales. In school.

Real life hit me in the face. Was this Brave New World? Big Brother is Watching? I had recently read about CVS measuring their employees’ BMI, a move which, in my mind, puts in jeopardy employees’ right to health privacy, as well as potentially their jobs and health insurance. All it truly accomplishes is discrimination. As the writers as Jezebel put it, “Heads up, Corporate America, punishing employees for being fat won’t make them skinny.”

Here I was, about to go give a talk about how the BMI is not only a problematic and perhaps spurious way to measure health (just check out this recent NYT article about a study which suggests that there is in fact a LOWER risk of death for the overweight), but how the ‘obesity epidemic’ in general has been framed as a ‘moral panic’ – a threat to the very social order. My talk focused on the cultural contexts of such perceived threats: the fact that ‘fat panic’ also reinforces hierarchies of class, race, and sex, and how such threats are used to shame and blame individuals and hold some bodies up as ‘normative’ and others as ‘deviant’, rather than holding systems accountable (like the U.S. food industry for their use of GMOs or the market glut of processed foodstuffs).

And there was my friend, telling me how her child’s public school had not only bought into this mentality, but was using it as a measuring stick to evaluate children – sending home ‘friendly’ notes to families whose children’s numbers weren’t ‘right’ with advice like ‘curb down on those sodas!’ (Never mind if your family didn’t even buy soft drinks!) Even worse, because these measurements were done in school, elementary school children themselves were comparing themselves to one another – whispering about a girl who was 103 pounds, regardless of her height, and learning, oh, so young, to use numbers like weight and BMI as proxies not for health, but for self-worth, popularity, beauty, and desirability.

And my friend’s school is not alone. CNN reports: ”According to the National Association of School Boards of Education, about a dozen states require some sort of weight recording and reporting as a means of combating childhood obesity.” While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended, in 2003 mind you, that BMI be tracked regularly, what they did not recommend was that schools do that tracking.

And so, although I may be a voice shouting into the wind, I wanted – no NEEDED – to say something. And say it loud:

There is no excuse — NO EXCUSE – for putting little boys and girls on weight scales in school. Responsible administrators should not be doing it. We educators and parents cannot allow it.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Controlling portions, controlling pregnancies: Race and class panic in New York City public health campaigns

Poster for New York City’s “Real Cost of Teen Pregnancy” campaign. Via NYC.gov

This month, New York City launched a new campaign called “The True Cost of Teen Pregnancy.” The 4,000 bus and subway posters, which reportedly took two years of planning and cost the city $400,000, feature wailing toddlers and babies (mostly of color) next to captions such as Honestly, Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you… and I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.

Yes, teen pregnancy is experienced disproportionately by girls of color and girls living in poverty. Yet data shows that national teen pregnancy rates across ethnicities are dropping not rising, including in New York City. So why this public health campaign? And why now?

The race and class politics behind the “True Cost” campaign become more obvious when one considers that over the past years, the city has released several public health campaigns that have been critiqued as specifically targeting working class and poor communities of color. Indeed, public health campaigns are never value neutral, and are often used to orient social hostility toward marginalized groups.

While “True Cost”  was quickly criticized, most of the pushback has focused on the problems surrounding the use of shame as a health promotion tool, not explicitly around its race and class message. For instance, the New York City Coalition for Reproductive Justice launched a ‘No Stigma! No Shame!’ campaign in response to the ad, and Planned Parenthood of New York City released a statement denouncing the posters, saying they perpetuated “gender stereotypes, stigmatizing and fear based messages” while ignoring the ‘structural realities’ impacting these young women’s lives (Code for racism and classism? Perhaps).


Then there is Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, who defended the use of stigmatization and fear as motivations for healthy behavior in a column for the New York Times, arguing that “shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society.”

But Reeves’ voice has seemingly been an outlier. Even TED talk ‘shame and vulnerability’ rockstar BrenĂ© Brown has gotten into the conversation, arguing against Reeves’ conclusions by asserting, “Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

But I don’t think the issue is purely about shame. The question is: who is being shamed and for what purpose? It is not a coincidence that New York’s current campaign shares a lot in common with a Georgia hospital’s 2011-2012 campaign against childhood obesity. Like the “True Cost” ads, these black and white photos of morose looking children were accompanied by fear-filled captions like WARNING: Chubby kids may not outlive their parents and WARNING: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.

Both campaigns use children (the universal “innocent victims”) to blame parents – a strategy seen often in international development projects, such as Invisible Children’s problematic KONY 2012 campaign. In these narratives, entire communities, or countries, are portrayed as incapable of, or uninterested in, protecting and caring for their own children, or themselves. (Which then justifies everything from domestic governmental regulation to international interference in, or invasion of, other countries)

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicious!