My dear friend and colleague Angela Meadows recently penned this important article for The Conversation discussing the issues surrounding weight, school children and academic performance. There have been a number of studies over the years linking higher weights with lower performance in school–particularly among female pre-teens and teenagers. Many of these studies have sought and eliminated co-variables in other health issues, potential depression and the onset of menses in women. However, many of these early studies seemed to avoid what would seem the most obvious connection between school performance and weight–the impact of weight stigma on school children of all ages (especially girls).
Angela then shared with us the results of a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health specifically documenting the results of weight stigma on kids in school. For the most part, the study which followed over 3,000 kids for over 10 years found no significant difference in test scores for the kids who became fatter. However, the study indicated that as the students weights went up, the teacher’s evaluation of the kids abilities went down. (Primarily for reading in girls and math in boys). And to a certain extent, as weights went up, the students evaluations of their own abilities went down. Although, the studies didn’t specifically measure attitudes of weight bias in teachers, Angela pointed to other studies that do just that.
Angela goes on to discuss important research linking weight stigma to bullying by other children as well as studies that indicate that much of the lag in academic achievement by fatter kids can be explained by bullying from both fellow students and educators.
I have not been shy in the past in saying and saying and SAYING that stigma does not make people healthier, happier or thinner. In fact weight stigma makes people less likely to seek medical treatment, leads to disordered eating and risky behaviors, leads to more stress, anxiety and illness and yes, leads to lower academic performance. And since there is literally no scientifically proven way to help most people lose a lot of weight and keep it off, perhaps telling people to lose weight to avoid this stigma is ill advised.
We know that weight-based stigma is harmful for people of all ages, yet we continue to march in the war on obesity for the fatties’ own good. We continue to fight body fat and ignore the plain fact that it is our societal attitude towards fat people that is causing much of the damage. We continue to wring our hands and shout “What about the children?” as an excuse for maintaining this war on big bodies, without addressing the simple fact that the number one casualty of the “war on obesity” seems to be from “friendly fire” on the folks we are purporting to help. At what point will we finally realize that stigmatizing children into a fruitless attempt to change their body size so that they can avoid weight stigma is at best, seriously messed up?
I hope that moment is coming and I hope it is coming soon. Our kids have enough to deal with just trying to grow up in this world without being victimized by the very people who we engage to help them. I hope that we can start some efforts to seriously help our educators and child caretakers recognize weight bias in themselves and work to push past it. I hope that we can stop allowing our kids to be collateral damage from a war that it is nearly impossible for them to win.
Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)