“The Student Body”: Do Students’ BMI Tests Do More Harm Than Good?

By October 1, 2016 December 20th, 2017 Bioethics, Justice, Life In The Body

When Bailey Webber interviewed people for her new documentary, The Student Body, she took a set of bathroom scales with her. And every person with whom she spoke, she asked, “Would you be willing to step on the scales so we can get your BMI?” To a person, they balked. Most ultimately refused, though some reluctantly agreed.

A lot of kids in our schools don’t get the choice to decline. And then a letter arrives notifying them that they are too skinny or too fat.

In the ground-breaking and excellently produced film she made with her dad, Bailey, a young journalist, tackles the heated topic of childhood obesity and misguided efforts to solve our national childhood obesity epidemic.

And just what are those misguided efforts? Lawmakers in dozens of states have passed mandates requiring schools to perform body mass index (BMI) tests on students and then send letters stating their results. Coined the “Fat Letters” by students, these notifications go to kids whose bodies fall outside a narrowly acceptable range, essentially notifying children, even as young as kindergarten age, that they are abnormal. Sometimes the results are devastating.

When a determined sixth grader in Ohio voiced her protest against the mandatory weigh-ins and the embarrassing letters, Bailey took up the girl’s fight. Bailey’s investigation is chronicled in The Student Body, the story of how she and a friend took on law-makers for their fat-shaming. But in it she also explores the broader complexities of childhood obesity.

Hosted by The National Eating Disorders Association, the award-winning father/daughter team who made this film have been honored by the National Association of University Women. Michael Webber is a motion-picture producer and renowned documentary filmmaker whose film, The Elephant in the Living Room, I reviewed here in 2011.

Although makers of The Student Body acknowledge that obesity is a real national crisis, the Webbers’ stance is that requiring kids to reveal their weight at school in addition to receiving impersonal notifications is cruel and bully-like behavior. Good intentions, perhaps, but horrible execution.

Webber does interview those who support the BMI screenings/notifications. But the film is definitely weighted toward those who believe the notifications cause damage.

The film has excellent production values, a bit of humor, and it’ll inspire your faith in the next generation of journalists. Watch it with a young person and have a great discussion. Look for screenings near you this fall (and in video next year) and check out The Student Body web site.


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