“Fat letters.” Shifting the stigma or damaging children?

Schools are sending “gentle” notices home to parents of pre-school-aged children who appear to be at risk of becoming obese.

When I first heard about these “fat letters” I immediately assumed that Texas was doing something wrong. Admittedly, my typical response to something like this is, “Oh no. What is Rick Perry doing now?” I clicked on the article, only to realize that it wasn’t Perry’s usual boundary crossing antics, but rather a certified dietician in the San Fernando Valley of California.

My thoughts drifted to, “Oh no. California, what have you done now? In an attempt to perpetuate the ‘beach body’ ideal, you are damaging those children.” Without reading anything, I had already decided this was an inappropriate violation of privacy, and more importantly a potentially harmful abuse of school power. I thought, “What is wrong with people? These are children, and you’re calling them fat?”

“Fat” is a terrible word

It’s so definitive. Depressing. Fat is a stigma you can’t escape. You will always have pictures. People will always remember. You were fat. Fat enough that someone said it out loud. And if you’re a parent, and you get a “fat letter,” you’ve failed the test. You let your child become stigmatized. You let fat happen.

Well, that’s when I realized, maybe something is wrong with me. Who thinks like that? Surely I’m not the only one. Maybe something is wrong with us. Rather, something is definitely wrong with American culture.

Schools send letters home when a child is injured. They send letters home when there is an outbreak of lice, or chicken pox. Hopefully, they send letters home if a child is bullied. Why shouldn’t they send letters home when a child is at risk of developing one of the largest contributors to heart disease, which happens to be the leading cause of death in the United States?

Obesity is an epidemic. According to a recently released report:

    • 29.2% of adult Texans are obese
    • 65.1% of adult Texans are overweight and obese
    • 10.6% of adult Texans have diabetes
    • 27.2% of adult Texans are physically inactive
    • 31.3% of adult Texans suffer from hypertension

By the way, my BMI (Body Mass Index) places me among the 65% of Texas adults who are overweight or obese. Does yours?

I’ll tell you the real problem with “fat letters.” It’s us.

The fact that we have nicknamed individual health reports about 4 year olds, “fat letters,” is truly indicative of American culture. It demonstrates how the media depicts and perpetuates the stigma associated with being overweight.

We have made “fat” synonymous with “worthless,” and that is why we can’t fight this epidemic.

Doctors find it difficult to talk to patients about their weight, particularly women, because their patients may not return for needed visits. Friends cannot approach each other with earnest concern because calling someone fat is mean; it might end the friendship. Parents can’t approach children with concerns about weight because it could initiate an eating disorder.

Being told that you are overweight or obese is not only a health condition, but also a judgement.

As a culture we need to shift the conversation away from body image, appearance and stigma, and redefine “fat” soley as a public health concern. We simply cannot engage in any kind of effective discourse without structural changes to the societal definition of “fat.”

Perhaps letters to pre-kindergarten parents, parent education and early intervention are good places to start, but perhaps the best place to start is here:

My name is Jessica Noel. My BMI is 27.8. I am overweight, but that doesn’t make me worthless.

I have a great life, and lowering my BMI will only help me live it longer.

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