Trick or Treat with Fat Letters: A Credible Hoax

Massachusetts has bowed to pressure from parents and stopped sending out so-called “Fat Letters” home with students who have a high BMI, but a Fargo radio station filled the gap. In what is likely a hoax, they had a woman call in to say she will be dispensing candy to children she judges to be healthy and letters to shame the parents of “moderately obese” children for letting their child go out trick or treating.

This letter says, in part:

Have you ever heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child?” Your child, in my opinion, is moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar and treats to the extent of some children this Halloween season.

If it is a hoax, the busybodyness of this letter was pitch perfect. The station that aired this call and posted the letter has a history of another such stunt. “It’s their shtick,” said one listener. Nonetheless, several national media outlet and blogs (including ConscienHealth) picked up the story.

Thankfully, some thoughtful people commented about how unhelpful her strategy is. An assitant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, Katie Gordon, commented that this might hurt more than help:

It’s just that kind of thing that for some kids, if they’re vulnerable, might trigger major problems. It’s important to remember that one’s appearance does not necessarily reflect whether or not a person has healthy eating and exercising habits.

“Here, you get candy. You get a letter. Like that kid hasn’t suffered enough?” was the comment from one local resident. It’s nice to see that more people understand shaming doesn’t help.

Regarding the letters from Massachusetts schools, a storm of criticism led the state’s Public Health Council to a 10-1 vote to end the practice. One quarter of U.S. states send letters to parents informing them of their child’s height and weight. But Massacusetts was one of only nine that included a BMI score labeling the child as obese.

Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, praised the decision:

Everybody talks about bullying, but one of the primary sources or causes of bullying is weight. I think there’s enough evidence to show the more you put emphasis onto a child’s size and weight and basically ridicule them or make them feel self conscious, the more you’re steering them in our direction. And we have enough eating disorders, we don’t need more.

Schools have a role to play. Shaming does not. And pointless fights with parents squander the goodwill we need to address obesity constructively.

Click here to read a report on trick or treat letters, here to read about the hoax, and click here to read more about the letters in Massachusetts.

Trick or Treat, photograph ©  raelb / flickr

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