Parents Still Outraged Over ‘Fat Letters’

The complaints are rolling in, but are schools wrong?

In 19 states, 'F' stand for fat. Report card image via shutterstock

In 19 states, ‘F’ stands for fat. Report card image via shutterstock

More parents are criticizing the so-called “fat letters” they’ve been receiving from schools, saying that the state requirement of informing parents of a child’s body mass index (BMI) number is an invasion of privacy that labels children “fat.” In 19 states, including Massachusetts, parents of children whose BMI is above a healthy percentile receive the letters.

Childhood obesity is no joke. Fat children become fat adults. According to a report from the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers have estimated that by 2030, if obesity trends continue at the current pace, then obesity-related medical costs alone could rise from $48 to $66 billion a year in the U.S. Who pays for that? We do, the taxpayers.

According to the CDC, more than 30 percent of children and teens are overweight or obese and 5 percent are severely obese. A Time magazine report says that members of the state legislature in Massachusetts have started a crusade against the “fat letters,” introducing legislation to ban the collection of students’ BMI data, which the Department of Public Health has been gathering since 2009. Rep. James Lyons (R-Andover) filed a bill aimed at “protecting children’s privacy” about their weight (H 2024).

How can you protect privacy over weight? You wear your weight. There is nothing private about it. The Department of Public Health recently proposed changes to the regulations, which would eliminate the requirement to mail BMI numbers to parents, and instead, parents would “request” the information.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Are the parents that are outraged by these letters just upset with themselves? Maybe because if their children are singled out as at-risk and overweight then they are taking it personally? After all, what’s more personal than one’s children? Maybe they are getting upset looking back at the food they fed their children or the way they live their lives? When those outraged parents get on the scale in the morning, are they upset about their own weight? This is not a matter of “fat shaming” or intruding into people’s lives. This is about saving lives, and if the outraged parents don’t see that then it’s a testament to this country’s struggles with obesity at all ages. When a colleague returned from China a couple of weeks ago, she joked via Twitter:


Last year, Boston magazine contributing editor Katherine Ozment argued that perhaps parents should take these letters seriously:

Children who received those letters, and especially their parents, should take the information seriously and pursue the next round of more detailed diagnostic tests to see if the BMI rating was accurate.

While some will continue to argue that government should stay out of family decisions, public health officials have decided the problem is too big to ignore—that parents can’t do this alone—and, based on the evidence, I’d say they’re right. Parents should thank them for the heads-up.

Are a few outraged parents enough reason to change the system? I don’t think so, and I hope not. Parents should be thanking the schools for these letters. The real outrage should be at the parents and lawmakers who are challenging this. Is it a perfect system? No. Is it better than nothing? Absolutely.