In middle school, I once opened a letter from the school addressed to my parents. These envelopes usually contained progress reports of my grades; as a straight-A student, I was always excited to get them. I liked seeing the comments from my teachers. Words of affirmation were important to me, and their glowing reviews made my heart soar.
But this time, it was not a progress report. It was a letter from a school-wide health screening, informing my parents to “seek medical advice” because I was “overweight.”
I felt gutted. I shredded the letter so my parents couldn’t read it. This was the first time I remember feeling insecure about my body. The first time I remember looking around and seeing how I looked in comparison to my peers.
I felt humiliated.
Looking back, I was not “big” by any means. I had hips and curves earlier than my friends. But I was healthy. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and there was nothing wrong with mine. I was mid-puberty and growing. But reading those printed words about my body mass index caused damage to my seventh-grade heart that would not be undone.
In high school, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was the biggest girl in my friend group. The word “overweight” haunted me. By junior year, I obsessively counted calories in the MyFitnessPal app. I obsessively exercised to burn 500-1000 more calories than I ate. I would spend an hour at the gym after dinner to create the calorie deficit I needed to be “skinny.” I was determined to be “normal” according to the BMI calculator I found on the internet.
My hair started falling out. My nails broke. My stomach was always hurting from the number of protein bars I ate trying to stay full.
But my peers finally started to notice me. My friends and family told me I looked “so good.” I moved into the “normal” BMI range and received a “normal” letter the next year from the school screening. And all of it confirmed my biggest fear: People loved me and noticed me and were proud of me when I was “skinny.”
As an adult, I still wrestle with my thoughts about myself and body positivity. That letter wreaked havoc on my body image for years, despite eventual therapy and a loving family. I wrestle with dieting because I’m afraid if I count the calories, I will be back in the rat race of the 500- 1000 deficit a day. Sometimes my mental health takes priority and I don’t exercise every day. I try to find balance, and it’s hard.
I have my own children now—and I’m terrified. I want to instill body positivity. I have seen family members already restricting their child’s diet. They can’t have another slice of pizza, that’s not healthy. They can’t use dip, that’s extra calories and fat. Those moments make me feel a flood of anxiety and overwhelm. How can I protect my kids?
And now, the new medical recommendation is for adults to prescribe diet pills to overweight children. If a letter changed my mental perspective on body image forever, can you imagine what a conversation with adults I loved, admired, and trusted telling me I needed diet pills or surgery would have done to me? How can I protect my kids from this destructive mindset where BMI numbers result in a prescription for diet pills? How is destroying a child’s mental health and self-image for the sake of “skinny” an acceptable answer?
Why aren’t we solving the real problem? Why aren’t we spending money making sure families have access to real food? Making produce available to families who live in food deserts? Providing food security for families who go without meals?
Why is the same organization that preaches one hour of screentime ignoring the fact that the norm at school is for our children to have six or seven hours of screentime at a desk? Why aren’t we spending time ensuring our children spend at least an hour outside every day at school? Why aren’t we spending resources to fund music and art to help our children explore hobbies and interests in school beyond a screen?
Why have we resorted to humiliating and shaming children to use diet pills and have surgery?
Do not misunderstand what I am saying: I want my kids to be healthy. But I want them to be healthy in a well-rounded way that respects all body types and mental health. To find exercise they love because it makes their minds and bodies feel good. To eat foods they love, including cake, pizza, and popcorn, because those foods taste good and remind them of places and people they love. To have foods available that are nourishing and make their bodies feel good and energized like produce, protein, and whole grains.
Most importantly, I want both of my children to know they are noticed, worthy, and loved whatever size they wear or the number on the scale, or their BMI.
The new guidelines make me feel sick for our children’s future. They also make me feel utterly wrecked for the little girl in seventh grade who would have been prescribed diet pills even though she was beautiful and healthy.