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California requires two years of Physical Education to graduate from high school. In one of those required two years, students must pass the fitnessgram. Failure to pass the fitnessgram in two years results in being required to take PE all four years of high school or until you pass. The fitnessgram is a series of tests including push-ups, sit-ups, and running a timed mile.

Kid #3 took regular PE last year and passed the fitnessgram. She had friends, though, who really struggled. I was horrified to hear the requirements, at least one of which was based on BMI. Kid #3 is petite; she’s 5’3” and less than 115 pounds. For comparison, I’m 5’6” and in the neighborhood of 135, so very average. I couldn’t run a mile unless someone was chasing me with an axe, and even then I’d probably try to talk them to death. A number of #3’s friends have higher BMIs and they were required to run a mile far faster than #3. A kid’s BMI determined how much time they had to run a mile. The higher the BMI, the faster the mile.


I have so many problems with this example of physical fitness/healthy lifestyle modelling. First, these are kids. Their bodies are growing and running amok on hormones. The girls with higher BMIs are frequently what we’d call “curvy” in adults. (I don’t want to get creepy here.) Some parts are growing a bit disproportionately to others. And the boys who are a bit chubby now? They often get another growth spurt in their late teens and everything evens out.

So what are we teaching them with all this emphasis on BMI at age 14 or 15?

Nothing good.

Again, these are kids. So if they’re chubby/overweight or even obese, how much control do they truly have? They aren’t generally in charge of buying groceries, much less meal planning and prep. They’re at the mercy of whatever the adults in their household do. And if those adults are watching every single penny? Well, maybe the leaner cuts of meat are out of the question. Maybe potatoes are more cost effective than broccoli. Hell, maybe there are issues with having reliable appliances or paying for utilities. So in addition to fat shaming, these kids are subjected to economic snobbery.

It’s just not helpful.

I understand there’s a childhood obesity problem in the U.S. and that problem ripples out to self-esteem, school performance, and other social issues. I get it, I do. But drawing attention to a kid’s BMI in front of an entire PE class isn’t going to help solve that problem. Kid #3 had ZERO instruction on nutrition and healthy eating in PE last year. It was all about BMI and running a mile in less than 9 minutes.


#3 absolutely despised PE last year, and since she passed the fitnessgram, she was able to take Dance for PE this year. Thank heavens, because her dance teacher is a-maz-ing. She’s five months pregnant (and round, like pregnant people tend to be); she’s still fit and strong. She’s a great example of health and vitality for the students. She talks about nutrition. She offers encouragement, enthusiasm, and a great role model to the students. She leads by example, not BMI.

Yeah, we’ve got an obesity health problem in the U.S., but shaming teens for their bodies isn’t helping. We can do better.