Education

Weighing children at school is not the answer to lockdown health concerns

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Memory is a peculiar thing. Some moments stick in your mind from years gone by, while others from days ago become immediately cloudy. One particular physical education lesson at school when I was 12 is an example of the former. It may have been best part of ten years ago, but it remains in my brain like it was yesterday. 

As part of a fitness and health section of the class, we were given a booklet to record our physical data. There were spaces to write down our age, height, and, to my discomfort, weight. I remember lingering to the back of the line with other girls my size, looking over at the booklets’ of girls who had already stepped onto the scales in an attempt to see what was, firstly, a socially accepted number to jot down and secondly, what figure I could get away with. 

As I slowly edged forward with the queue, I tried out poses that felt lighter. Balancing discreetly on on tip toes? Breathing in? Leaning all my weight onto one foot? In the end, I stepped on the scales for the shortest amount of time I could manage, took note of the number and subtracted a few digits before jotting it in the booklet. I struggle to remember what we learnt in geography that year or what book we studied in English literature, but I can recall every painstaking detail of that lesson. It was nauseating, humiliating and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. 

Earlier this month, an episode of Jeremy Vine gained widespread reaction from the public when debating the re-introduction of the very same proposal I experienced a decade ago; weighing children in schools in order to tackle an anticipated rise in obesity post lockdown. When I heard the debate on this resurface, the same nausea returned. Not for myself, I was out of school so I was safe. Instead, my heart ached for those I feared would now be subject to the same insensitive policy.

I want to take the time to make a point of paramount importance. This article is not a rebellion against the education I received growing up. I had an incredibly privileged schooling, for which I will always been aware of and grateful for. Instead, with hindsight I know that my school was not the only one to use this idea. As the issue has been debated across the Twittersphere, it has become clear that school children across the country had stepped on scales in PE lessons in the interest of supposed wellbeing. 

Some of these school children, all grown up, have names we are familiar with. Jameela Jamil, to give one example, has vocalised her outrage at the fact that the policy is even being debated. On Twitter, the activist and actress posted that she also recalled being weighed at the age of 12 in school, and she believed her eating disorder she developed can be traced back to starting at this very moment. She called for us to understand that size does not always equate to health, especially when these children in question are still growing. 

Policies are in place for a purpose. Reason and logic dictates that the desired effect of weighing children in schools would be to improve physical health and help children become fitter after months of being deprived of sports and playtime activities. Yet, experts are stating that the policy will have the every opposite effect, and indeed already has in the past.

Sabina Rebis M.D., a family medicine doctor at Yale New Haven Health commented that weighing children would increase anxiety with the policy as a whole being more “detrimental than beneficial”. In fact, BEAT, the UK’s eating disorder charity, now heartbreakingly reports that they have seen cases in children as young as 6 years old. The proposal is considered to aid this statistic’s growth. Instead, dietician Erin Palinski-Wade suggests the answer lies in nutrition as allowing schools to supply healthy snacks and balanced meals is more likely to create a fitter group of school children. 

But, more from a moral standpoint mother and paediatric sports dietician, Christina Fitzgerald, stated that the idea was “terrifying and cruel”. Perhaps this is the angle we need to be focussing on. We can debate the statistics and the data, but this misses the point. Weighing children in schools is callous and merciless. 

The colloquial expression reminds us that kids are cruel, this policy merely adds fuel to the fire. It creates another reason for children to not fit in, further ammunition for bullies and all the while with no redeeming features. This policy serves no one, but least of all children. 

Instead of weighing children and inducing a fear of their bodies, how about we encourage discussion around what “normal” bodies look like and that two vastly different looking people can, in fact, weight the same amount? How about we create enjoyable exercise regimes that get all kids excited about sports, regardless of their ability? How about we teach them about nutrition and investigate ways of supplying schools with healthy meals and snacks. To put it more simply, we should be on their side. 

With schools now set to return for the new academic year, placing the development of children who have lost out during lockdown must be a priority. Should schools be on track with the health of their pupils? Absolutely, but introducing scales into the equation is counterproductive. It is good that we are asking questions about health, both mental and physical. However, regardless of the question, the answer is never to weigh children at school. 

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