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Bringing back primary school ‘weigh-ins’ is a terrible idea – it could cause more problems than it prevents

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The Independent
The Independent
 2021-06-21

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When my daughter was six, I remember standing in front of her, trying to get her dressed in a puffer jacket. But she was adamant that she was not wearing it. “I hate it,” she said. “It makes me look all fat and puffy.”

I didn’t know what to say – after all, she barely weighed three stone. She’d been on the lowest weight centile since she was born; had been referred to a dietician; just scraped 0.4 on the national scale for her age and height. A doctor once told me to give her “high-sugar snacks” like biscuits and chocolate between each meal; rice pudding made with gold-top milk and porridge doused with double cream every single morning: anything to fatten her up.

But what worried me most wasn’t that she was on the small side; she was healthy and active, so I knew there was nothing seriously wrong. No – what concerned me was the level to which we were openly obsessing over her weight – and the messages that risked putting across to her about her body. If her comment was anything to go by, it already had.

And that’s exactly what I find so worrying about plans to reintroduce the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), as The Independent revealed last night . The procedure was cancelled at the start of the pandemic, but there are now calls to “up” the frequency of weigh-ins, from twice (in total) to once a year.

The motivation for bringing the system back – and potentially increasing it – comes from the fear that lockdown has reduced kids’ physical activity; that homeschooling and increased snacking over the past 18 months will have made the issue of child obesity worse. Before the pandemic, around one in three children leaving primary school in England was overweight, with one in five classified as obese.

But while it’s clear we need to tackle the very real problem of child obesity (and its associated health risks) where we find it, as a parent, these school “weigh-ins” – even if they’re conducted discreetly – worry me deeply, because negative body image , weight issues and conditions such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating start early .

If we line our kids up every year and measure them by height and weight in front of each other in the classroom, we risk “fat shaming” some children and stigmatising others – while putting a negative focus on body image at a terrifyingly young and impressionable age. How will that help the children who really need it? And couldn’t it in fact make the problem worse?

After all, shocking statistics show that kids as young as four have attended clinics for eating disorders ; and a study from Girlguiding and Dove revealed that one in five primary school girls has been on a diet, with 47 per cent of 11 to 14-year-old girls opting out of activities including swimming and speaking up in class because they don’t like how they look.

Eating disorders charity Beat maintains that poor body image can be a risk factor in developing an eating disorder – though notes that they’re caused by a range of factors – and a 2016 Journal of Paediatrics study of children aged nine to 14 found more than half were dissatisfied with their body shape. When asked to select a picture representing the shape they wanted to be, half of the girls wanted to be thinner, while the boys were split: 21 per cent wanted to be bigger and 36 per cent to be thinner.

And, according to Girl Scouts , 80 per cent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, and have internalised the message that “curvier or heavier girls aren’t as well liked”.

Lockdown has also been shown to have exacerbated the risk of eating disorders – NHS data recently reported 2,682 admissions of children aged 17 and under with a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder in April 2020 to March 2021, which is up by 34 per cent on the previous year. Of these, 2,458 admissions were female patients, up from 1,807 in 2019-20. The NHS said it is also treating more children and young people in the community for body image issues than ever before, because of a “surge in demand”.

I have friends who have suffered from eating disorders for 30 years. When they talk candidly about when it first started, they remember being at primary school – some aged just four or five – and being teased for being “chubby” or for carrying “puppy fat”. In making our kids hyper-focused on their bodies at such a vulnerable age, we could be causing more problems than we prevent.

I asked my nine-year-old daughter how she would feel if the weigh-ins returned at her state primary school. “I wouldn’t like it,” she said immediately, shaking her head – in eerie reminiscence of the time I tried to get her to put on her puffer jacket. “If you’re standing in front of everyone and you aren’t eating properly; or your mum and dad can’t afford to buy healthy food, then it’s not your fault – but the people that were weighing you would make you feel like you were doing something wrong, in front of everyone. It would be embarrassing.”

“Embarrassment” may sound trite compared to a health problem like obesity – NCMP guidance warns children who are clinically overweight are five times more likely to suffer from the condition as adults, and are also more likely to be ill, absent from school and require more medical attention than their classmates – but it can also lead to anxiety and stigma, which may (in turn) lead to disordered eating. Shaming our kids won’t help that one bit – it may even make the long-term effects worse.

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