The SWEDA View: The National Child Measurement Programme: A Weighty Issue

The National Child Measurement Programme: A Weighty Issue

by Nerissa Shaw - Clinical Lead
July 2021

The government recently announced that it intended to bring back weighing in schools after the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to this routine practice. They cited the ‘obesity crisis’ and the exacerbating factor of lockdown for this decision. Childrens’ weight is to be taken as part of the National Child Measurement Programme at the beginning of Year 6.

However, the Women’s and Equalities Committee released a report in April of this year on body image, obesity and eating disorders, heavily criticising the current policies on tackling obesity. They found that not a single initiative by the government so far had impacted the weight of the nation and they also admitted that they don’t yet have a way of measuring whether their current strategy is working. Meanwhile, eating disorders have exploded during lockdown with a fourfold rise in young people seeking help from NHS eating disorder services.

I asked some colleagues and friends about their memories of being weighed at school. Some didn’t remember it at all, whilst others remembered this as a non-event – a simple health check to which they attached little meaning at the time. However, I believe it is fair to say that most of these people were those who had never really had problems with their weight or struggled with disordered eating.

Those who I knew to have had experience of an eating disorder or who had struggled with poor body image, whether a restrictive eating disorder like Anorexia, episodes of binge eating and purging, to emotional overeating and other forms of disordered eating, almost all remembered the experience as distressing and traumatic. At times, this was more to do with the reaction of the adult who weighed them and the resulting actions taken – shame was the overriding feeling remaining. Several cited it as the beginning of their lifelong struggle with food and eating.

“It was utterly awful, and the associated shaming by nurses and teachers… created an eating disorder that continues to threaten my life to this day, 40 years later.”

“…I wasn’t grotesquely overweight, just larger than some of the kids… My mum has never let me forget it and I’m sure it started 30+ years of eating disorders...”

“Weighing led to fat-shaming for me and a fear of scales, which I can honestly say took me decades to recover from!”

“I remember being weighed at school. I was deemed overweight and my mum was made to take me to a dietitian who told her to stop feeding me crisps, chocolate and other unhealthy snacks. The thing was, my mum didn’t feed me those sorts of foods anyway. The dietitian didn’t believe her and spoke about me as if I wasn’t in the room. That was the start of a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and worrying about my weight.”

Children at primary school are already taught to fear becoming fat and the stigma of living in a larger body only grows in a society where falling outside of a narrow band of acceptable body shapes is heavily psychologically punished. I’ve lost count of the number of parents who have told me about their child coming home from school with a fear of eating anything ‘unhealthy’ after an unsubtle, inappropriate, government-sanctioned lesson on healthy eating. There’s nothing wrong with teaching people what a healthy diet might look like but it should not be based on demonising certain foods and elevating others. Food does not have moral qualities – in itself, it is neither good nor bad. Research shows that body shape is hugely influenced by genetics, as is appetite and the way in which our bodies manage and store energy. There is very little we can do to influence this – indoctrinating children to believe that it’s all down to self-control is unhelpful and damaging.

Lessons in how appetite works, how to respond to hunger, making sure that healthy food is more affordable than heavily processed food, teaching that appearance is a small part of who we are as a whole and that health is possible at a huge range of body sizes would be a much better long-term approach.

Anyone who is shamed by those in a position of authority – teacher, nurse, doctor or parent – will internalise the criticism, creating a life-long sense of being defective in some way. Whether this leads to yo-yo dieting, low self-esteem, a deep sense of self-hatred or a full-blown eating disorder, the damage is huge and may never heal.

It’s certainly true that not everyone has bad memories about being weighed at school but no one has good memories of it. Whilst it might be a non-event for some, there are many more who will be negatively impacted.

Any taking of measurements needs to be psychologically informed. That is, the impact upon mental and psychological health as well as physical health must be considered. This aspect is entirely missing from the decision to weigh children at school. It doesn’t take ritual weighing to tell if a child is at risk because of their weight; many perfectly fit, healthy and active children do not fit into the very narrow band of what is considered a normal weight. Further, any 'issues' often correct themselves as a child grows and develops.

At best, even handled well, weighing at school highlights the idea that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to be. At worst, it starts a life-threatening mental illness that can persist for decades.

Note: As a parent you have the right to refuse the school permission to weigh your child. Contact the school directly if you wish to do this.

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