Some states have a legislative mandate for schools to weigh and measure students' body mass index (BMI). The results are then mailed to parents, like report cards, though they don't provide much guidance about how to understand the results. These letters, which have been commonly referred to as "Fat Letters," have experts quite worried. Here's the skinny on this controversial trend.

The Big Problem With Fat Letters

"What we are hearing from a lot of kids is that the experience of being weighed at school can be shaming," explains Claire Mysko, an internationally recognized expert on body image who is affiliated with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and is also the author of You're Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self. "NEDA doesn't have a problem with talking to kids about healthy behaviors, but they do object to the practice of singling kids out and making them feel inadequate," she says.

She says that children who do have a weight problem should address the issue in the privacy and safety of the pediatrician's office, where BMI is just one factor that's looked at in the scope of the child's overall health status.

The Problem With BMI

Mysko points out that current BMI standards don't take into account different body types, frames, and muscle, nor do they recognize that children have different growth patterns, with some filling out as they near adolescence before their bodies mature and change.

The BMI measurements also don't look at health measures, so where children fall on the BMI scale may be irrelevant when it comes to whether he or she is at risk for any serious problems in the future.

Furthermore, calling attention to children who weigh more can also set them up to be bullied by their peers and can also lead to eating disorders in those who are prone to them, Mysko stresses. And given that these tests are done at a time when kids are at very high risk for low self-esteem, this can have a negative impact on how they view themselves and their bodies both now and in the future, too.

Because of all of these issues, some states have stopped sending fat letters, but in other states, the practice continues.

What Parents Can Do About Fat Letters

If your school district engages in weighing students, there are things you can do to help support your student and minimize the impact.

"The key is shifting the focus away from the numbers and weight and instead talk about health at home," Mysko says. Teach kids to eat balanced meals and also engage in regular activity. These habits, if adopted young, will last a lifetime.

Also, if your school has an opt-out clause to the BMI screening, you should take it so your child isn't subject to the unnecessary scrutiny. Mysko also suggests contacting legislators, your school board, and other parents to express your opposition and help them understand why weighing kids in the classroom can do more harm than good.

To learn more, you can visit NEDA's website or call their live helpline at 800-931-2237.

Claire Mysko reviewed this article.



Claire Mysko, National Eating Disorders Association, Phone interview Nov. 14, 2013.