Generation BMI

Photo: hoyasmeg

There are all kinds of phrases designating the time period in which we were born. Generation X, Gen Y and specifics aside, I'm somewhere between Baby Boomer and Millennial (a proper lady never voluntarily reveals her age - and neither do I). And even though this generation coming up has been known as the "iGeneration" for growing up in the shadow of the Internet, I have begun to think that maybe we should be referring to them as "Generation BMI" given the intense focus on childhood obesity and the well-meaning attempts at reining that in.

This particular bee in my bonnet got buzzing when some area towns began flirting with the notion of the schools measuring each student's BMI and sending the results home to their parents. These are the same schools which have slashed recess and phys ed programs, but I digress. I'm not about to touch that third rail know as "school funding". I'm also in the camp of thinking that medical issues are better dealt with through pediatricians but understand that not every child might have access to one. My specific concern is the negative emotional message these adolescents might be receiving while we're trying to correct a physical issue (obesity) - which may or may not actually be a problem because they haven't finished growing yet.

Based on personal experience, I was always a slim child until adolescence came along and hit me with the lumpy stick. My two siblings, who were always very trim, just kept growing in proper proportion to their weight and height (damn them!) - but not me. It's not good to feel different at this stage of life. I don't know about you but I remember adolescence as a frantic, hormone swill of a time filled with extreme self-conscious behavior and constant anxiety over fitting in. That was pretty much the extent of my world but in that regard, I think I was a pretty typical pre-teen. It was bad enough that I was conscious of my growing weight but God forbid anyone else take notice too. (Cue nervous mother.) So it didn't help matters when my well-meaning mother got me a girdle after I turned twelve and insisted I wear it.

Talk about humiliation! I became obsessed about my weight and appearance, although thankfully never fell into any kind of serious eating disorder other than general overeating to help soothe my hurt feelings (oh, the irony!). A year later I experienced the growth spurt that my mother thought was never going to happen and "evened out" quite nicely, thank you very much, but now with the very heavy baggage of what I believed was conditional acceptance based on appearance. LaGuadia Sky Caps would need a payloader to carry these bags from the curb.

I recognize the need to tackle this obesity problem but wonder if doing it through the schools is such a great idea - especially during adolescence. While researching whether or not BMI screening in schools was as helpful a tool as it was intended to be, I came across this article which pretty much nailed what I was thinking - especially in the "Potential Harm" section and beyond.

It stated that while more research needed to be done, the only study regarding a parent's reaction to receiving a BMI report of their child being overweight was to restrict the child's caloric intake - which could prove damaging to a child who has not gone through puberty yet. This could lead to stunted growth and behavioral issues such as sneak eating, hiding food, overeating and eventual yo-yo dieting; all of which ultimately increase the risk of obesity.

Another issue that can arise is the stigma of a child being labeled "fat". A BMI reading of overweight can be devastating for a child whose main purpose in his or her early life is to "fit in". There is an awareness in children very early on that being overweight is socially unacceptable - the health risks surrounding that are the least of their concerns. "Few problems in childhood have as significant an impact on emotional well-being as being overweight". As such, overweight children are at increased risk for lower self-esteem, depression and isolation.

Lower self-esteem in this instance is a bit of a double-edged sword. While labeling a child as overweight can undermine his or her self-acceptance as well as that of others, not addressing it at all can lead to increased weight over a prolonged period, which is just a continuation of the problem. A child needs a good sense of self to set the stage for achievement in school, personal interactions and the world beyond. I've heard of schools no longer printing the honor roll in the newspapers to preserve the self-esteem of the kids who didn't make it and yet there seems not to be the same concern with BMI screenings. Is this the Jekyll and Hyde of political correctness? Do some self-esteem issues trump others?

Body dissatisfaction is one of the greatest risk factors involved in the onset of eating disorders. While the correlation between BMI and body dissatisfaction begins in childhood and is small, the size of the correlation increases with age. Peer and parent pressure along with the constant media bombardment of the "perfect body image" already serve to undermine a child's satisfaction with his or her own body. BMI, while intended to be helpful, may be having the opposite effect.

There are very few bandwagons that I don't jump on but this is one of them. While I acknowledge the problem of childhood obesity I also cringe at the idea of telling a not-yet-done-growing child that they are overweight when in fact, their height possibly just hasn't caught up to their weight and left to its own devices, will self-correct. Physical health risks may have been averted but what of the emotional damage? There must be a balance somewhere but I haven't found it yet. And it's not just the schools getting into the BMI business that worries me (even though that's where an "overweight" reading is likely to spread like wildfire) - it's even how some pediatricians approach the topic. How about a little sensitivity for starters. How about the doctor taking the parent aside and talking about it amongst adults instead of right in front of the child? Or how would you respond to the doctor's nurse asking, "Any concerns about his/her weight, Mom?" just after weighing the child in - but still within earshot of that child? My response? "Ask me when he/she is done growing".

I know a lot needs to be done in terms of making our kids healthier and preparing them well for adulthood. We need to make sure they get enough exercise and are eating healthy foods as often as possible - and in a world of fast food and video games, that can be a real challenge. But by properly addressing their physical needs, we also need to keep their psychological health intact as well. We need to bring up the best generation we can.

So what do you think is the right balance to strike here? To BMI or not to BMI before puberty - that is the question.

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