Should We Stop Telling Kids Their Height and Weight Percentiles?

iStockPhoto.ocm / Marilyn Nieves

I was a happy kid, lucky enough to have wise and well-adjusted parents. I can relive injuries: falling off a slide into darkness and screaming. I remember touch: my mom’s hand on my chest when she had to brake abruptly, as if that would keep me safe.

And I remember believing that I was fat. There are scenes that go with this, like the sight of my thighs when I sat down, or my embarrassment when an “All About Me” assignment included a line for weight. And then there was that day in elementary school Physical Education class when we were all told to line up so that our body fat percentage could be calculated with calipers pinching the backs of our arms.

I know my reaction to the calipers: oh hell no. I was a mild-mannered child who rarely got in trouble. But when I saw what was happening, I was horrified. I understood, even in elementary school, that having one’s body pinched and a body fat percentage reported was pointless – and hurtful.

I am now a mother. My opinion of that day in PE has not changed. I may well be the only person who remembers that experience three decades later, but I still hate those calipers and the body-shaming they represent.

Our culture is mad about bodies and what bodies are supposed to be able to do. That’s a truth that spares few of us from discomfort. We think we’re not pretty enough, not thin enough, not toned enough, not fast enough. Still, we seed our shared obsession young, often without intending to do so. We comment on charming clothing and hairstyles among even young children. We admire kids who can swing a bat or kick a ball, and devote considerable time and energy to better swings and kicks.

We may have struggled at times with body scrutiny as children and teens ourselves, but we perpetuate it nevertheless. I believe that our popular culture, and the parent and educator communities in particular, get this to some degree. But it’s like that third or fourth glass of wine on a Friday night: we can’t help ourselves. We like beautiful, and we’ve long been reading from a consistent menu of how to define that: stylish, thin, athletic. We want kids to embody those ideals. Life will be easier that way.

My son, age 13, believes that he is fat. He wears hoodies to school every day because he thinks wearing baggy clothes hides his physique.

I cannot say that I am surprised, because the PE teachers with the calipers are pretty much still out there. Indeed, my son does not enjoy too many spans without being scrutinized for his weight. Granted, my child is in middle school, and kids in middle school are not known for being an empathetic bunch. But the obsession with body size is not only perpetrated by kids and their verbal jabs. It comes from all those toned torsos in movies and video games. It comes from ads for fitness products that suggest pushing one’s physical limits is among our highest human pursuits. And, yes, it comes from my son’s PE teacher, who asked him at the beginning of the term whether he could “handle this class.”

The formal tracking of my son’s size began, as it does for virtually all American children, from his first day of life. His percentiles in height and weight have never been concealed from him. In fact, his pediatrician tracks both measures via graphs that she displays on a screen in the exam room. At a recent appointment, there were several foods mentioned that he should avoid – nutrition bars, crackers, sports drinks, even the honeydew melon he said he enjoys. I might as well have been sitting in my own pediatrician’s exam room, thirty years earlier, listening to the response my physician gave when I told her I liked to eat yogurt. Only eat half a serving then, she told me. I was meticulous in my attention to this counsel. I would avoid mixing the yogurt so it would stay firmer, and I could achieve a perfectly smooth line at the halfway mark. Only half a serving for me. I’m too fat.

I appreciate that both these physicians were trying to mitigate the risk of obesity and the metabolic disorders that are associated with being overweight. I know there are data that support a relationship between obesity in childhood and adult obesity. I also know that research has shown that body image begins to tank in middle childhood, and these concerns are not unique to girls. In fact, the Growing Up Today Study, a longitudinal project from 1999 to 2011 that investigated boys’ concerns with thinness and muscularity, found that by the time they reach young adulthood, nearly one in five boys has been “extremely concerned” about his physique¹.

My son, like I was before him, is a whole person. He enjoys making people laugh. I do too. He’s at ease with affection and hugs me often. I used to sidle up to my mother and write her love letters. I have always enjoyed the parallels between us. That he will never be described as “skinny,” as I never was, may just be part of this package.

I do wish that both he and I grew up in cultures that valued our health. And in valuing our health, it began not with our body statistics, but with what makes us laugh. And from there, it focused on the kinds of decisions we make, our engagement with school, family, and activities, the balance in our diets and the opportunities available to us. Instead of showing us those graphs and their thresholds, how lovely would it be if we danced riotously to Erasure’s Oh L’Amour, because it’s catchy and it makes Mom giggle and why the hell not. That is how we mitigate the risk of metabolic disorders – by living well, jaws parted in laughter, believing ourselves worthy of great love. We are all far more than our bodies. TC mark

  1. Field, AE, Sonneville, KR, and Crosby, RD. Prospective Associations of Concerns About Physique and the Development of Obesity, Binge Drinking, and Drug Use Among Adolescent Boys and Young Adult Men. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(1):34-39.

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