Politics & Policy

Taking Obesity Too Much to Heart

If your daughter's school tries to put her BMI in her permanent file, for heaven's sake opt out.

We have in our house a Valentine tree, under which I have been told to place all incoming missives from Cupid.

It’s actually a ragged little poinsettia left over from the last gift-giving holiday, which was — may I growl? — a mere seven weeks ago. But when Katherine, who is seven, announced that we needed a Valentine tree, the poinsettia was called into service. Better it than my good ficus.

Valentine’s Day, when you’re in the first grade, is a very big deal; the class instructions came home last month. Katherine is to bring 21 cards, one for each child in the class, just like I did back when Nixon was president. Under President Obama, however, there’s a twist: no candy allowed. Instead, Katherine and her classmates will exchange paper cards devoid of lollipops and eat a “healthy red snack” during their party. What is a healthy red snack? Radishes? Who knows? No one is salivating in anticipation.

And so begins Michelle Obama’s War on Fat People: with a crackdown on small pleasures. Here in the suburbs of Boston, the local high school has removed candy bars and soft drinks from vending machines; students can buy only water and sports drinks. In the elementary school, children may no longer bring in cupcakes to celebrate a birthday, although they are free to distribute celebratory plastic trinkets (as long as they don’t, in any education bureaucrat’s fevered imagination, resemble weapons of any kind).

Meanwhile, in addition to measuring and weighing our children, Massachusetts schools are now calculating their body-mass indices, as Arkansas and New York schools do. Beginning this year, first-, fourth-, seventh-, and tenth-graders will have their body-mass index noted in their permanent files, unless their parents opt out. The program began in my school district this year; by 2011, it will be mandatory statewide.

The screenings are private, the school assured me, and their purpose, it said, is benign. The information will be used to write letters to parents, “to give you information about your child’s weight status and ideas for living a healthy life.” Thanks, but I don’t need lectures on nutrition from a school system that serves hot dogs and nachos for lunch. (One day next week, the meal at our middle school is to be “double cheeseburger and bag of chips.”)

Equally offensive is the idea that I — the parent, who actually lives with the child – need to learn about my kid’s weight from a stranger. Maybe Michelle Obama needed assistance in this department, but really, most parents do not. We need our public schools to teach molecules and algorithms and occasionally allow the kids to run around outside for a while. Let us, the parents and guardians, worry about getting their jeans zipped up.

But Mrs. Obama says that, because a third of American children are overweight, their parents need the government’s help. Her goal, she said, is “to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.” This will be done by a task force, which will need a lot of our money for its tasks: “ensuring access to healthy, affordable food; increasing physical activity in schools and communities; providing healthier food in schools; and empowering parents with information and tools to make good choices for themselves and their families.” Of course, if there’s one thing we all lack in the Internet age, it’s that elusive information. But sure, feel free to do something about the double cheeseburgers, and maybe the task force can bring back recess while they’re at it. But that’s where the government’s involvement should stop.

The willingness with which most parents allow public schools into the most private of spaces – their children’s bodies — demonstrates the power of euphemism. Call them “public schools,” and we get all warm and fuzzy and buy endless rolls of wrapping paper that we don’t need. Call them what they really are, “government schools,” and the KGB comes to mind. If U.S. Census workers started knocking on doors and demanding to take our measurements, there would be howling in the streets. But because it’s taking place in the schools, and only children are involved (presumably no teachers are making their body-fat percentages known), well, then, it must be okay. It’s not. Opt out. And when you do, remember Michael Oher.

In the movie The Blind Side, the young Oher is known as “Big Mike,” to his embarrassment. He is big. Massive. One might say obese. Yet, there were no BMI screenings at the Christian school he attended. His teachers gathered to discuss his schoolwork, not to fret about his size. Oher’s size did ultimately matter, but on the football field alone, and there, it was a very good thing.

Put Big Mike in a Massachusetts public school, and this is what transpires. He is weighed, measured and BMIed; an accusatory letter goes home to his parents. Your child, it says, is failing; he is taking up too much space. “What?” his parents exclaim. “We had no idea!” Much healthy living ensues. And in three years, when the next BMI screening rolls around, Big Mike fails the fat test again. Because no matter how much money it spends, the government and its schools cannot make our children lose weight. It can, however, grow quite corpulent itself as it spills into new crannies of our lives.

Since I won’t be able to pilfer candy from my kids’ Valentines this year, I had to stop by the CVS to buy a bag of my own. The supply is more plentiful than usual, since the children are not buying in bulk; capitalism always suffers when a bureaucrat earnestly tries to do good. By the way, the Necco conversation hearts that are now contraband at the school? They contain all of three calories per “Be Mine.”

Jennifer Graham is a writer and editor in the suburbs of Boston. Her website is jennifergraham.com.

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