According to The Tide, a local radio station, the program has received a lot of media spotlight, and many other schools and districts are asking questions about how to implement similar programs.
The station also reports that the nurse practitioner in charge of the program, Yvonne Bartlett, is coming to some "interesting" conclusions with regard to the measurements. According to Ms. Bartlett: "It's not a strong statistic, but they found the higher the BMI - the lower the students' grades."
You read that right. The kids are not only fat, they're stupid, too. Or is there another way to interpret that statement? Because if there is, I'm not getting it.
Why she saw fit to report such a ‘fact' when she had to preface it with the statement that it's not a strong statistic and knowing that they hadn't done a proper study of all the correlating factors I don't know. But she did report it.
It was bad enough when they were just reporting BMI to students and their parents, but now to further shame those students by reporting that their grades are connected to their weight is unconscionable.
It all feeds into the socio-cultural prejudices toward overweight individuals. If you're fat, you're seen as being lazy and ineffective. You're often regarded as being not too bright - for if you were smarter, you would've figured out how to lose weight already.
The correlation - weak as it is - that the school found between weight and grades can be due to any number of social and personal determinants, all of which can have an affect on both weight and school performance. And those factors are precisely why I question whether this program will achieve anything.
Certainly you can enroll overweight children in exercise classes, but unless you address the core reasons for their weight gain, any such programs will produce individual but not societal responses. If a child comes from a lower income home, they are more likely to be both overweight and to have lower grades. Providing exercise classes and after-school tutoring may affect that one individual, but next year that student will be replaced by another in the exact same situation.
Teaching children to make healthy food choices when their access to healthy food is limited due to income, lack of transportation or a cultural bias towards other foods will produce a short-term result, for sure, but won't change the determining factors behind the majority of their food choices.
And ignoring the connection between emotion, mental health, and physical health just sends these kids off into the world ill-equipped to make real change. A child with low self-esteem is more likely to be both overweight and a poor school performer. But rather than address that issue, the school has chosen to report on the relationship, thus diminishing the child's self-esteem even more.
In a recent study on the role of participants in the "fatosphere" - a blogging community dedicated towards fat-acceptance - lead researcher and PhD candidate Marrisa Dickens found that, by engaging in a community that accepted them at whatever weight, participants felt more empowered. The sense of belonging to a supportive community was important to their perceived improvements in health and well-being.
Ms. Dickens' advisor, Dr. Samantha Thomas, is a well-known name in research on weight and weight stigma. In announcing publication of the research into the fatosphere, she stated "the undesirability of being fat, and the moral assumptions that come along with that, cause many obese adults to internalize weight based stigma. And because of this they spend significant amounts of time dieting and exercising their socks of trying to overcome that stigma. For many adults this pattern becomes more and more severe, the more the attempts fail."
Once individuals, however, were able to engage in a community that accepted them at the weight they were at and encouraged them to embrace themselves as being worthy of self-care rather than struggling with a weight issue, the dominant discourse shifted from "how do I lose weight" to "how do I take care of myself?"
Not surprisingly, this led to participants describing "their mental and emotional health improving, and that they started taking part in activity because they enjoyed it rather than doing it just because it was part of a weight loss regime."
In light of those findings, I question the value of the program at St. Stephen's High School even more. Not only does it not look at all the determining factors for high BMI and cardiovascular risk, it engages in the common, dominant discourse that brands fat as ‘bad' and even shameful, and singles out those individuals perceived to be ‘fat' as needing extra help with exercise and diet, rather than with self-acceptance.
To see the program lead participating in dangerous and alienating conclusions linking BMI to school performance makes me question the program even more. This is fat-shaming at it's worst. And it's being done in a community of individuals, by stint of their age alone, that are already at high risk for accepting self-shaming values.
I have no doubt that the program will lead to some individual improvements in overall health, but I also have no doubt that it won't change the society that causes those health issues, and I have strong doubts that it will affect any real positive change.
In fact, I fear that rather than positive change, all that will result is more negative emotional outcomes for the students singled out to participate.
Dara Squires is a freelance writer and mom of three based in Corner Brook. You can contact her on facebook at ‘ww.facebook.com/readilyaparent'.