She didn’t want to be weighed in front of her entire gym class, so 13-year-old Ireland Hobart Hoch said no. But instead of respect for her decision, what she got was a visit to the principal’s office.
Her response to all the tsk-tsking, as reported in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register: “I really wasn’t comfortable with anybody but my mom and doctor knowing my weight. For another person to know – that’s not important to them.”
Teen health experts, school officials and gym teachers may beg to differ. The curriculum director at Ireland’s school suggested the real issue was with the student. “I think there are some body image issues with this girl,” she told the Register.
But my reaction is one of admiration for this young woman for taking a stand. How many adults would enjoy getting on a scale in front of their peers? Indeed, how many of us can truly say we look forward to the scale at the doctor’s office, where presumably there’s a valid health-related reason for being weighed?
Responses from the Des Moines Register’s readers were mostly in support of Ireland. Many commenters dredged up tales of their own youthful humiliation and body anxiety. The consensus seemed to be that a) there’s little benefit to weighing students during gym class; and b) the school district overstepped its authority.
Which prompts a larger question: How critical is it to submit to the scale, anyway?
At times it’s critical indeed. Anesthesia, for example, is dosed according to weight. The same goes for many chemotherapy regimens for treating cancer. Someone with congestive heart failure needs to be weighed often to monitor for potentially serious accumulation of fluid. A history of an eating disorder, recovery from weight-loss surgery, monitoring for medication side effects – any of these can be a valid medical reason for asking the patient to get on the scale.
A good case can be made that even for normal, relatively healthy people, charting the ups and downs of their weight over time is a valuable piece of their personal health information – and one that can provide an early warning sign of looming problems.
If only so many of us didn’t dislike it so much.
A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a University of Pennsylvania study that found many women were so uncomfortable with the prospect of facing the scale, they stayed away from the doctor’s office altogether.
Commenters had plenty of their own experiences to share. One person stepped onto the scale only to have the nurse blurt out, “I see you’ve been eating too much.” Another woman noted that although the number on the scale is just a number, our increasingly size-conscious society has attached so much moral meaning to the body mass index that weight has become a form of judgment. “I try not to feel ‘judged’ but it’s so hard not to, with every other health-related news story out there being ‘OMG! You are 5 pounds overweight! You are going to die soon, if not today, you gross gross fatty!'” she wrote.
Lest readers think this is only an issue related to obesity, anxiety over the scale also can be extremely triggering for many people who have an eating disorder or are recovering from one.
Apparently Ireland Hobart Hoch wasn’t the only student at her school who was bothered by the gym class weight-in. She told the Des Moines Register that classmates confided to her that they didn’t want to be weighed either. “I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable when they get weighed. I just feel really strongly about it,” she said.
To their credit, officials at her school suspended the weight screenings after she complained. But it makes one wonder why it had to come to this. If being weighed creates so much angst among so many people, what does this say about American cultural attitudes towards weight? Why not find ways to make the process less intimidating – relocating the scale from a public hallway at the clinic, say, or training staff to avoid nagging and/or thoughtless comments?
Maybe it’s time to step back and take a deep collective breath, suggests registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix. Getting weighed “should be a confirmation, not a reprimand,” she said.
And people always have the right to say no.