“Mom, I need to tell you what happened in my P.E. class.”
“My teacher repeated my weight in front of the whole class. Twice.”
The term “mama bear” comes to mind when I reflect back on this recent experience shared by one of my children. In a flash, I felt my body well up with rage, my chest tightening from internal pressure that made me want to explode.
Here is the immediate script for the P.E. teacher that I began rehearsing at lightning speed in my mind:
Sooo… I understand that you just completed the state’s mandatory fitness and body composition testing. Tell me, exactly where does it say in the requirements that YOU are required to repeat my child’s weight in front of peers? Twice. And, please tell me exactly what YOU were thinking when you did this, because I have to believe that, since you’ve already given her a hard time about her fitness level, it was either intentionally humiliating, or you are just plain stupid.
Mama bear. I was in definite mama bear mode. Mama bear is that part of me that puffs up when I, or when someone I love, feels shame. And that is what I could see on my daughter’s face when she shared her story.
In our culture, we often use single variables to measure our worth. Take the BMI, for instance. BMI (Body Mass Index) is one of the most commonly used measurements in schools to determine one’s risk for obesity; it is widely viewed as the single determinant of a child’s health.
As part of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) 2006 federal guidelines, schools participating in the school lunch program were required to institute a “wellness policy.” Many schools opted to comply by, among other things, measuring BMI and instituting some form of nutrition education and/or fitness testing. This set in motion practices that included not only measuring the BMI, but also sending letters to parents of children whose BMI measurements were identified as falling into the overweight or obese range.
But the BMI has been shown to be grossly misused
According to a 2013 study completed by the University of California, San Francisco, and published in the Journal of Scholastic Health, “BMI screening and notification via FITNESSGRAM assessments did not demonstrate improvements in pediatric obesity at the population level.” This is not the only study that has shown this less than promising impact on our culture’s “war” on obesity.
This brings me back to my daughter’s P.E. experience. If the intention is to help a child and perhaps even help families have more balanced relationships with food and exercise, how is a single measurement going to be effective? If I told my child “to get into Harvard Law School, you just need to get an A+ in debate class. That’s it,” we would consider that laughable. Why? Because we know that it takes much more than a stellar, single grade in a single class to get into Harvard (or any college for that matter). Why do we live as though single measurements (like one’s BMI, the number on the scale, or the ability to run a mile in under 12 minutes) are an effective and definitive way to assess health?
If we are to make a change, we need to change the narrative on weight and exercise. We have to use language that is not divisive, shaming or extreme.
If there is an upside to this story, it is this: it started a dialogue — with friends, family and colleagues, and even here in this magazine, about what we want for our loved ones when it comes to body image and our relationship to food and exercise.
Fortunately, my daughter came to me with her story. She owned it and spoke about the humiliation she experienced, instead of internalizing it and staying silent, which would have led to her swimming alone in shame. Her courage allowed her to let us in, to get curious about the experience, and to write, as Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW, would say, “a brave new ending.”
This is the type of narrative that I hope will continue, encouraging body confidence and resilience to our culture’s toxic narrative about body image and exercise.
By Jen Lombardi, MFT