'Fat Letters' Sent Home To Students Spark Controversy In Massachusetts

They're being called "fat letters"-- notes mailed home from schools in North Andover, Mass., to alert parents that their child qualifies as obese.

"Honestly, I laughed," Tracy Watson, the mother of a fourth-grader who was the subject of one such letter, told the North Andover Patch.

Watson's son Cam is an active member on wrestling and football teams. But a screening by the school revealed that Cam's body mass index -- an indicator of body fat in relation to height and weight -- put him in the category of obese. The letter subsequently advised the Watsons to talk to their pediatrician.

“I know I’m not obese so I didn’t really care about the letter. I just crumpled it up,” Cam Watson, who is 4 feet 7 inches and weighs 97 pounds, told NBC Boston affiliate WHDH.com.

Matt Watson, Cam's father, told the news outlet that the school screenings are flawed, not only because they make students feel bad, but because they don't take into account muscle mass.

Letters also get sent home to notify parents that a student is underweight, or at a healthy weight. A representative from the state's Department of Public Health defended the screenings to The Huffington Post in an email, arguing that they are part of a broader strategy to combat obesity and that parents can opt their children out.

BMI screenings are part of a multi-faceted approach to address the significant public health problem of obesity. Children with a high BMI are more likely to become overweight or obese adults and be at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Helping children maintain a healthy weight may prevent serious illness later in life. The latest BMI report showed that 32.3% of students in Massachusetts were either overweight or obese.

BMI screenings are intended to raise parents' awareness about this issue. Parents and guardians are given the opportunity to waive their child’s BMI screening at school by submitting a written request. The results of the screening are directly and confidentially communicated to the parents or guardians of each student.

Still, that hasn't stopped parents from trying to put an end to the letters. As Patch reported, Tracy Watson reached out to state Rep. Jim Lyons, who has since proposed legislation to prevent the Department of Public Health from collecting data on students' height, weight and BMI.

Obesity rates among children have doubled in the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Data from 2010 found that 18 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are considered to be obese.

But strategies to curb the problem have been known to falter when they cross the line into what's known as "fat shaming." A 2011 campaign out of Georgia, for example, sparked outrage by relying on images of overweight children with taglines that included "My fat may be funny to you but it's killing me."

Karen Hilyard, a health communication researcher at the University of Georgia, told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution at the time that arming parents with information about how to help their children lead healthier lifestyles would be more effective than adding to the social stigma surrounding weight.

“We need to fight obesity,” she told the news outlet, “not obese people.”