Anti-Obesity “Fat Letters” Shame Latino Kids, Have No Effect On Obesity
In 2003, Arkansas introduced a controversial new anti-obesity measure — body report cards for children. The report cards measure body mass index, the ratio of height and weight, to determine which children are obese. Also known as BMI letters, and even “Fat Letters,” critics say they are scarlet letters for young people already struggling with negative body image. Some opponents say they even contribute to eating disorders in vulnerable teens.
Critics and proponents are still arguing about whether the fat letters are a useful anti-obesity initiative or a body-shaming technique. Now, the program is facing a fresh criticism: it doesn’t even work.
This summer, a study from University of California professor Kevin Gee showed that the letters had virtually no effect on health outcomes or obesity rates. And according to a 2007 report in Eating Disorders Review, a survey showed that “Arkansas students, when compared with students at a national level, were more likely to practice unhealthy eating behaviors, such as taking diet pills, vomiting, or taking laxatives to control their weight.”
No matter its efficacy or lack thereof, the controversial program has already spread to new school districts in states around the country, desperate to fight rising childhood obesity rates. Obesity and poverty are closely linked in the U.S., where low-income Latino and African-American children are more likely to become obese when compared to their white peers.
Of course, there are other ways to encourage healthy lifestyles in young people. In San Francisco, a Boys and Girls Club is trying to pry young people away from their smartphones for physical activity this summer. As of 2014, 64% of U.S. adults used a smartphone regularly, and “teen screen time” has been steadily rising for years as well.
At the Mission branch of the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club, 70% of the club’s members are Latino, while 6% are African American. The club has instituted a new summer program called “Power Play,” which aims to help kids avoid sedentary digital activities. Plus, the Clubhouse has been teaching health cooking and fitness classes to area young people.