People always seem to be comparing each other, whether academically, socially or otherwise, and college students not only count Facebook friends and followers, but also calculate GPAs and measure calories.
The body mass index (BMI) is another way to see if people measure up. It is a deeply flawed way of measuring the ratio of weight to height in order to determine if an individual’s weight is healthy.
Despite its flaws, this method is being used in schools, doctor’s offices and government regulations in order to define human beings by yet another metric.
One problematic way schools use the BMI is through “fat letters,” which schools throughout the nation send home when a child’s BMI is considered at-risk for obesity. It is understandable why schools may want to step in when a child appears to have an unhealthy situation at home, but “fat letters” are not the way to do it. Focusing on size and appearance can be very damaging, especially with children as young as elementary school age.
The BMI divides human beings into four sweeping categories, which are underweight, normal, overweight and obese. As it is a simple calculation, it cannot account for the difference between fat, muscle or bone, which can lead to athletes being labeled as “obese” because of their muscle mass. On the other hand, the metric may also mark someone as having a healthy weight even if it is mostly made up of fat and not muscle, according to LiveStrong. com.
According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, the focus on BMI in schools may lead to increased numbers of eating disorders.
Though sometimes seen as attention-seeking behavior or as a symptom of vanity, eating disorders are actually very serious, with anorexia having the highest mortality rate of all mental illness. Obviously, no one would want to morph a child’s relationship with food in this way, but with America’s current obesity crisis, a focus on weight seems inevitable.
However, even in a country where the rate of eating disorders has risen since 1950, as a survey published in Biological Psychiatry found, obsessing over weight does not have to be the only option.
Although weight can be a useful predictor of lifespan and some diseases, there are ways to build healthier lifestyles. If schools focus on exercise, nutrition and wellness, lower weight should follow. The country, though, often subscribes to weight loss as the most apparent sign of “health,” even when size does not necessarily indicate wellness.
Schools can take a new approach that appeals to total wellness. Helping children deal with stress, anxiety and self-esteem issues early on should help curb the development of eating disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Teaching children and adults to love and respect their bodies, rather than punish and shame themselves, can naturally lead to a healthier body image. Teaching people about food groups is fine, but it is more important to teach them how to love themselves, and the rest will follow.
Chelsea Mulligan is a freshman majoring in international studies.