That is the question. I’d love it if you all would “weigh” in on this one. (Ha! I’m so punny.)
I have an unhealthy relationship with the bathroom scale. Yes, I said “relationship”. That’s how odd/unhealthy it is. Last week, I read a post on the blog Stop Chasing Skinny called “Screw The Scale” (the post title is actually longer, but that’s the upshot of the title.) The post was written by Christine Molloy, but it could have been me. What I mean by that is Christine’s words capture my distorted view of the scale perfectly.
I’m not going to repeat Christine’s words, or even talk about my own deal with obsessively weighing myself (and letting the number dictate how I feel each day.) Instead, I want to tell you a story and an observation about girls, boys, weight, and self-perception.
When my own kids were in elementary school I would occasionally volunteer at the school. One job I did for several years was to assist the school nurse with vision and hearing checks for all the kids in the school. Along with the vision/hearing checks, the kids were weighed and measured (height). We would set up a couple of scales in the hallway of each grade level and bring each classroom out into the hall to weigh and measure each kid, one by one (and record the info.)
This was never a problem for the early grades, K through about 3rd grade. When we got to the 4th and 5th graders, however, I could see this “public weighing” was causing much concern with the kids, especially the girls. I asked the school nurse if we really had to do this. She said it was “state mandated” and to just use a storage closet or empty classroom for weighing and measuring, and bring the kids in one at a time. The nurse didn’t seem to notice that this “private” weighing didn’t really solve the problem. But I did. I guess it “takes one to know one.”
As soon as the kids knew they were about to be weighed, many of the girls would get agitated. They would ask me if they “really had to do this”, or they would tell me they “already knew their weight” and “could they just write it down for me”. Some of them remained quiet but their faces told a very unsettled story.
There was enormous pressure among the girls to tell their weight to all the others once they stepped off the scale. Some of the girls even tried to peek as others were weighed. I don’t think most of the girls were trying to be mean, I just think that girls are pretty social and it was something different in their day — they just wanted to talk about it. (Yes, some girls are mean at this age. But mostly it seemed to be simple curiosity.)
I could see that some of the girls were mortified to step on the scale. Handling the peer pressure once they were done with the scale just made matters worse. You could tell this one moment had just ruined their day. (While I did my best to keep the all the girls quiet in hopes of reducing the demands to “tell your weight”, I’m sure my efforts were insignificant.)
I wasn’t surprised by the girls reactions, and I felt bad for them. What was surprising to me was that some of the boys were also stressed out about the number on the scale. In fact, some of the boys argued with me about their number on the scale. For many of these boys, it turned out that they were on club sports teams and needed to be above or below a certain weight. A few of them, however, were clearly feeling as uncertain about themselves as those girls were. The whole experience was rather sad for me.
My DIL, an elementary school teacher, tells me that these days, the kids in our state go through a “fitness test” each year. Those who “fail” the test get a letter sent home to their parents. I wonder how they feel when they are handed a letter to give to their parents. Or even how many feel when they have to perform the fitness test in front of the other kids. It makes me sad to think about that too.
On the other hand, we have a serious obesity problem in this country. According to the Center for Disease Control, 17% of the children (ages 2 – 19) in this country are obese — 12.5 million kids. This number has tripled since 1980. (This is not just a problem for those overweight individuals. It’s a problem for the nation’s health care costs.) I think public schools are a great place to start teaching children how to know: if they are healthy, why they should care, and what to do about it.
Weight is one measure of health, right? Is it helpful or hurtful to weigh kids in school? Are these fitness tests and “weigh ins” helpful or hurtful if public school are being forced to cut back on PE and nutrition programs due to budget cuts?