the dark side of school weigh-ins

content warning: eating disorders

my laptop broke so I couldn’t write or do research but I’m back >:) I said that I was going to start another topic but I heard about this on the news and I was so angry I had to put everything else on pause to rant about this.

The Independent wrote an article on June 20th, titled ‘School weigh-ins to return amid fears of post-lockdown child obesity crisis’, and I had a lot to say about it so I had to write a whole blog post about it because a single tweet wasn’t enough. This article will explain why this is a terrible idea that will do much more harm than good.

background

The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) began in 2006. It involves measuring the height and weight (BMI) of children in Reception class (aged 4-5) and Year 6 children (aged 10-11) in England, in an effort to “tackle childhood obesity”. This programme was paused at the start of the COVID pandemic, and is set to restart in September. Currently, children in England are weighed twice in primary school, but there has been a call to increase these weigh-ins to once a year due to the pandemic.

(see also: Minister says there has been a ‘rapid increase’ in demand for eating disorder services during pandemic)

It is expected (anecdotal evidence only) that children have gained lockdown weight, and according to the Independent article, “experts fear that since then a combination of homeschooling, less regular exercise and easier access to snacks has had a detrimental effect on the waistlines of the nation’s children.”

If the government truly cared about the health of British children, would they have voted against free school meals over the holidays last year? 4.3 million children lived in poverty in the UK between 2019 and 2020, which is 31% of the child population. Maybe the government should focus on tackling this issue rather than worrying about their waistlines.

Socio-economic factors, including income and where they live, have a great impact on an individual’s weight, and studies show that children from disadvantaged families are more likely to be of higher weight. There is a societal belief that a malnourished child would be severely thin as they have less money to spend on food, but in reality poverty is linked to a higher weight. This article discusses the term ‘Modern Malnutrition’, the new wave of malnutrition in our society, which is diet that is high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in vitamins and minerals. Modern malnutrition is more common in households of lower socioeconomic status, and those likely to suffer from poverty.

People tend to argue that healthy food is affordable and accessible for everyone, as fruit and vegetables are relatively cheap. However, the article above mentions factors that are usually left out of this conversation, such as the fact that there is a higher concentration of fast food restaurants in disadvantaged areas, and that foods high in fat, sugar and salt are often subjected to promotions in supermarkets, making them the most affordable option for lower income families. Fruit and vegetables may be cheap but they expire quickly, and no meal consists of just fruit and vegetables. Fresh meat and fish are usually expensive, and there are many obstacles that prevent families from being able to provide children with wholesome meals. Meals that are more convenient tend to be lower in nutrition, but these are the only option for many families.

Public health campaigns in the UK rely on personal responsibility and ignore the factors that allow individuals to make these choices. The NHS’s change4life and five a day campaign do not address the barriers to a nutritious diet, especially for children who have no control over their circumstances. This study discusses the barriers to a healthy diet in the UK in detail, including rising food prices, cooking skills, food deserts, and high costs of nutritious foods. Placing responsibility on the individual also places the blame on the individual. These public health campaigns do not tackle health inequalities, it does nothing but shame those who are unable to achieve the expected standard of health.

Just a little something for the government to think about hehe

i love this tweet!!!

weight does not measure health

It’s one thing is that the BMI scale is problematic and outdated, it is rooted in racism and colonialism, and subjecting children to western, Eurocentric bodily ideals from a young age is wrong. (read my article about the racist roots of the BMI scale and fatphobia).

But the BMI is simply inaccurate. It cannot differentiate between fat, muscle and bone, and also does not take into account age, ethnicity, gender or body composition. It also cannot measure mental health, metabolic health, cardiovascular health, and musculoskeletal health. A person’s weight is not a reflection of their health, as you cannot tell if someone has achieved their body through healthy or unhealthy behaviours.

weight does not measure your health, and health does not measure your worth!

In schools, many children are falsely labelled as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’, which may have a severe impact on a child’s mental and physical health. According to Ellyn Satter, children subjected to these labels feel flawed: “not smart, not physically capable and not good about themselves”.

school weigh-ins are harmful

Public health campaigns must shift the focus from body weight and size, and place it on health. Children’s bodies change and grow at different rates, and it is completely normal, but they’re likely to compare themselves to their peers. Those who mature earlier or later than others may already feel insecure, but weigh-ins may make them even more aware of their bodies when they already feel self-conscious. It is important to let their bodies develop into what nature intended, instead of making them feel wrong.

Ikeda, Crawford, and Woodward-Lopez (2006) wrote: “It is critical to understand that obesity prevention and health promotion programs can actually harm one aspect of health while attempting to improve another. The goal of all programs should be to improve total health without exception.”

However, the National Child Measurement Programme does not coincide with this as weigh-ins at schools can have a detrimental impact on a child’s mental health. Ikeda, Crawford, and Woodward-Lopez (2006) discussed the potential harm of weigh-ins at schools. All of the information below is from the same article unless stated otherwise.

  • parental promotion of dieting
  • increased weight stigma
  • low self esteem
  • increased body dissatisfaction
  • disordered eating
parental promotion of dieting

A significant number of parents respond to the results of their child’s weigh-in in school by putting them on a calorie restricted diet. These parents may have good intentions, but putting a child on a diet can be both emotionally and physically harmful, setting the child up for a lifetime of an unhealthy relationship with food and their body. Restricting a child’s caloric intake can stunt their growth, especially during puberty, when a child’s body is already changing and requires more energy and nutrition. Dieting increases the risk of weight gain and binge eating, due to food restriction. It can also create behavioural problems such as secret eating, sneaking or hiding food, and overeating when they have unlimited access to food. Teaching children to fear food from a young age and reinforcing moralistic beliefs about food, could create a poor relationship food which they may carry into adulthood, and in some causes, lead to eating disorders.

Read this article, where the author discusses her experience joining weight watchers as an 11 year old, and the impact it had on her.

increased weight stigma

Nearly 80% of teenage girls report fears of becoming fat, but a child’s fear of weight gain has little to do with health risks, instead “it is based on early awareness that having a fat body is socially unacceptable in our culture”. Children as young as 5 years old have already internalised our cultural bias against fat bodies. So, it’s to no surprise that children of higher weight are more likely to be bullied by their peers because of their weight, and are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and social isolation.

low self esteem & increased body dissatisfaction

Young girls who perceive themselves as ‘overweight’ are very vulnerable to low self esteem. It could be very upsetting for a child to hear that they are ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’, when they know nothing about their bodies except that they’re wrong and unacceptable in our culture. It does nothing but shame children for something that is beyond their control, as they are not in charge of their lifestyle choices and eating habits.

Being weighed in school may encourage comparison among classmates, causing them to become more aware of their bodies and increase preoccupation with their size and weight. I remember being weighed in school, I think it was in year 3 and although our teacher tried to give us privacy so other classmates couldn’t see, I remember still feeling anxious and humiliated. And it didn’t stop us from sharing and comparing our weight, our bodies to one another. I think that’s when I realised my weight actually meant something, I didn’t know what it meant, I just knew that the lower it was, the better. I believe that it was that day onwards I began to feel ashamed of my body, and considered myself ‘fat’.

Weighing children at school in an effort to improve their health is counterproductive, as the study also found that children with poor body image are less likely to take part in physical activity. 36% of girls and 24% of boys said that they avoided taking part in physical education due to worries about their appearance. University College London found that today, young people are more likely to view exercise as a means of losing weight, rather than for fun, socialising, or to feel healthy (58% of teenage girls and 51% of teenage boys use exercise to control their weight).

In the article, the authors noted that regardless of size, those who perceive themselves as being either very ‘underweight’ or ‘overweight’ are more likely to attempt suicide. Body dissatisfaction is linked to dangerous risk taking behaviours and mental illness, and in a survey of UK young people, 36% of them said that they would do “whatever it takes” to lose weight.

disordered eating

Children labelled as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ may be motivated to take desperate action to reduce their weight by vomiting, taking laxatives, and using diet pills. In fact, over a half of teenage girls, and a third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control methods such as skipping meals, smoking, fasting, vomiting or using laxatives. They also found that 62% of teenage girls and 29% of teenage boys were actively trying to lose weight.

More than half of girls, and a third of boys between the ages of 6 to 8 desire a thinner body.

In a study of 14-15 year olds, dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder compared to those who do not diet. Those who dieted moderately were 5 times more likely, and those who restricted extremely were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

It’s very difficult to find statistics about eating disorders, due to the nature of them being so secretive and lonely. Many of those affected feel ashamed to reach out for help, and never receive treatment. It’s also very difficult to get a diagnosis for an eating disorder, and due to the nature of eating disorders, many of those affected may not want to receive treatment. Children are unlikely to reach out for support from family or teachers, and are more likely to turn to the internet for support – either on social media or internet forums, many of which can make the problem much worse, especially with the pro-ed communities on tiktok, instagram, twitter, and tumblr.


School weigh-ins have a traumatic effect and they do nothing to improve the health of children. The replies to this tweet show that it’s very common for weigh-ins to be anxiety inducing for kids, and some remember it as being the start of their eating disorder. It’s no surprise that children have gained a little weight over lockdown, just like the rest of us. It seems that the government’s response to this will only make things worse, affecting both their physical and mental health, after an already difficult year. Shaming kids for something that is out of their control is clearly not the answer. Public health campaigns that focus on individual responsibility do not address the barriers that prevent people from being able to make healthier choices- if these campaigns don’t focus on changing their environment, the socio-economic factors, how will they be of any help?

As the Mental Health Foundation (2019) stated:

“However, much less attention has been paid to the psychological and cultural impact of this increasing focus on people’s weight and size. The NHS, national governments and public health bodies across the UK should actively consider these effects when developing their campaigns and other messaging on obesity. This should include consideration of the psychological effects on children of child measurement programmes in schools, and their influence on how parents respond to and interact with their children about their weight.”

resources for support for eating disorders including support for family & friends, click here!!

♡ ·˚ ₊˚ˑ༄ؘ

works cited:


BMI screening in schools: helpful or harmful
weighing kids in schools… should we?
why school weigh-ins are a very bad idea
why weighing kids in school is so problematic
anyone who’s had disordered eating knows how dangerous weighing kids in school is
Children, Teens, Media and Body Image
Dieting and weight worries on the rise in teens
Body image: How we think and feel about our bodies

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