More and more schools are weighing kids, but you usually have the option to opt out of school weight programs. It’s an option worth considering regardless of your child’s individual weight status.
School weigh-ins are upsetting and stressful for most kids. Parents should be asking hard questions about the practice of weighing kids at school. For example:
- Why should the school weigh my child?
- How will this personal health data be used?
- Given that this is private health data, how is my child’s privacy being protected?
- Does weighing kids at school have any impact on their health?
- Do the risks of weighing my child at school outweigh the benefits (if there are any)?
As parents, we have the right to ask these questions. Many times the answers are vague, and focus on “preventing childhood obesity.” But exactly how does weighing children at school do that? It turns out it doesn’t. Weighing kids at school has not been shown to impact their weight status or health. It has not reduced childhood obesity despite being in practice for decades.
A randomized controlled trial (the scientific gold-standard) published in 2016 found that school-based weight interventions that included weighing children, nutrition counseling, and access to an after-school exercise program were not effective in reducing BMI or improving health behaviors. Journal of School Health
Terrifying kids nationwide
Kids do not like school weigh-in programs. When asked, they express confusion, concern and even terror about being weighed at school. Children may ask to miss school on weigh-in days. This happens even when adults weigh the children one-on-one and don’t comment on the weights publicly.
Think about a group of children waiting in line, waiting to be weighed, watching their peers going in to be weighed. What do you think they are talking about? Weight! They are saying things like “what do you think he weighs?” “she’s so skinny!” and “I’m so fat!”
These are not healthy conversations for people of any age or size. They are a common side effect of being weighed at school while living in a culture of weight stigma.
Many adults remain traumatized by school weigh-in programs from their own childhoods 25+ years ago.
“I remember being weighed in front of all my friends at school when I was about 9. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life! I was told in front of my whole class I was obese. That was the beginning of my eating disorder.”
While many schools attempt to avoid public shaming, the problems with school weight programs remain.
“I hated being weighed at school today. It’s all anyone talked about all day – their weight, other people’s weight. It was awful!”
Why we should opt out of school weight programs
School weight programs are a perfect example of people meaning well but doing harm. School weight programs have not been shown to have any benefit to the children who are weighed. They have not been shown to reduce weight individually or among populations. And even if they did, intentional weight loss is not associated with improved health, and may even lead to reduced health long-term.
A school that focuses any time on children’s weight is very likely to do more harm than good. Here are the reasons we opt out of school weight programs.
1. No evidence of positive impact
Given that we all know that being weighed at school is stressful, there should be good reason to do it. But even a carefully planned and expertly delivered weight program had zero impact on weight, health behaviors or health.
The study published in the Journal of School Health set itself up for success. It implemented an intensive 6-week program incorporating weekly 30-minute counseling sessions followed by a 6-month maintenance phase with monthly sessions and weekly weigh-ins.
Each visit included:
- a weigh-in
- review of diet and physical activity log
- assessment of progress toward behavioral goals with a review of successes and strategies used and problem-solving challenges experienced
- discussion of the session’s topics using a student booklet
- assessment of current behavior related to topics and discussion of challenges and strategies for improving
- structured goal setting for the coming week.
A Food and Activity Tracking Log was provided to support the child in making healthy behavior changes. There was also a comprehensive exercise component.
Despite this advanced program developed by weight loss experts, students in the intervention did not show lower BMI, percent body fat, or waist circumference. Additionally, there were no differences in health behaviors compared to the control group.
Most schools do not have an advanced program like this in place, and merely weigh our kids with no follow up. So what are they attempting to do when they weigh our kids?
2. Perpetuates weight stigma
There is no evidence to support any benefits of weighing kids at school. And worse, it often causes harm. One reason is that weighing kids at school perpetuates weight stigma. This is the assumption that people are “better” or “worse” based on their weight status.
School weigh-in programs, even those conducted following guidelines designed to minimize risk of stigma and bullying, perpetuate weight stigma and bring weight to the center of conversation for at least one day of the school year.
“I feel so ashamed standing in line to be weighed. Everyone is looking at me and they all know that I’m the fattest kid in the class. I feel their eyes on me and their judgement.”
Bringing weight into the school conversation alongside spelling, history, and math tells our kids that their body weight is just as important as their brain. It’s not.
Weight stigma is strongly associated with negative health outcomes. In fact, many suggest that the problems that have been associated with high body weight are more likely due to weight stigma.
Weight stigma shows up in every corner of our society already. It is in our homes, healthcare settings, and schools. But weight stigma is not making us healthier. In fact, a focus on weight reduction in U.S. schools and healthcare settings has occurred at the same time as rising national weights. In other words, it’s quite possible that weight-stigmatizing behaviors are making us gain weight!
3. Perpetuates diet culture
Another reason our children should not be weighed at school is that we live in a diet culture. This is the assumption that people can and should control their body weight through restrictive eating and increased exercise.
Our diet culture means that many children will restrict food leading up to the weigh-in, or will begin restricting after finding out their weight status at school. Diet culture means that we cannot weigh our children without simultaneously suggesting that they lose weight.
“Mom, I can’t understand how I’m “overweight.” Where? I just can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do with this information.”
Weight loss methods are often called “lifestyle changes,” but the majority of bodies require mild starvation in order to lose weight. Intentional weight loss is dieting, no matter what we call it. One study found that girls who diet are 25% more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Dieting, regardless of the specific method, has such massive failure rates and side effects that it should be permanently removed from practice. Intentional weight loss results in regain, often plus more, in 90-95% of cases. And it causes permanent changes to the metabolism, making future weight gain more likely.
Over and over again, studies have found that the most common side effect of intentional weight loss is higher weight. Take a moment to imagine healthcare and educational systems that recommend a treatment with this level of failure. It’s outrageous.
Opt out: the best imperfect solution
In a perfect world, we would like schools to stop weighing children. However, with weight stigma deeply embedded in our culture, this is unlikely. Luckily, most school weight programs are “opt-out.” This means that parents have the option to opt-out of having their child weighed at school.
We recommend that parents opt out of having their children weighed at school for children of all sizes. This is part of our work towards social justice. Weight stigma will be perpetuated if only the kids in larger bodies opt-out of school weighing. But if kids of all size bodies opt-out, it is a firm statement that weight does not belong at school. It is a statement that all kids deserve to be free of weight stigma.
Check with your district regarding their weighing policy. Find out whether they weigh students and, if they do, whether you can opt-out. If not, consider what options you have. Perhaps you can start a movement in your district, or at least at your school. Body weight is private medical data. Parents should have the right to opt out of their kids being weighed at school.
Health can be weight-free!
The good news is that not having your child weighed at school does not mean you don’t support your child’s health. In fact, in almost all cases, health exists completely separately from weight.
Schools can certainly improve kids’ health by focusing on movement and nutrition. As long as these programs are free from weight stigma and diet culture, they can be effective and helpful. A few basic principles should guide school health programs:
- No food should be labeled “good” or “bad.” This includes “healthy” and “unhealthy,” which everyone knows is code for good/bad.
- Exercise should never be promoted as a way to “shape up,” “get lean,” or lose weight.
- There should be no mention of “no pain, no gain,” or other fitness euphemisms for suffering in order to look a certain way.
- Adults should avoid labeling people who are thin as “healthy” compared to people who are larger. Body size is not a reliable indicator of health status.
- Nobody should ever be told they need to “watch” their weight. Everybody knows this means restrict food and increase exercise, which is a diet.
- Nobody should ever be complimented for weight loss. This perpetuates the idea that thinner is better.
- Adults should never promote, discuss, or suggest any restrictive eating behaviors, including vegan, vegetarian, paleo, etc.
With these guidelines, schools can positively impact our kids’ health without any of the damaging side effects of weight-based health discussions. When our kids are free from body hate, disordered eating and eating disorders, they are undoubtedly healthier.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.