Lincoln U’s Big Fat Fail
In 2006, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania instituted a policy that students with a BMI of 30 or higher must take a “Fitness for Life” class. The students affected by this rule are now seniors, some of whom may not be able to graduate, either because they haven’t gotten their BMI tested by the university or because they have a BMI of 30 or higher and haven’t taken the class.
James DeBoy, chair of Lincoln’s health, PE, and recreation department, explains:
“This country’s in the midst of an obesity epidemic … We need to address this problem directly with our students. No student should ever be able to leave Lincoln and not know the risks of obesity.”
For reference, I’m 5’7″, around 160 pounds (which means I’m “overweight”, according to the BMI). If I hit 200 pounds, that puts my BMI at 30.5. I am now “obese,” and would be required to take the extra class in order to graduate. (Presumably, I’m also required to pay the university for the privilege.)
My God, what would these people do without the rest of us to remind them how fat and unhealthy and generally repulsive they are? It’s not like heavy people get smacked with this message every day.
The underlying assumption is that obesity is caused by a failure of willpower. People are fat because they’re lazy, gluttonous, or both. If they really wanted to, they’d lose the weight. Ergo, they’re fat because they choose to be.
In some cases, there’s truth here. When I switched from a job fixing computers throughout a six-story building to one where I sit at a desk all day, I gained weight. I could have added exercise to my life to make up for the walking I wasn’t doing anymore, but for a long time, I didn’t.
However–and this may come as a shock–people are different. Not everyone’s body works the same. I know people who eat healthy and play high-intensity racketball for 2-3 hours a night, 3-5 nights a week, but are heavier than me. My wife knows enough about dieting and healthy lifestyle to teach that Lincoln class, yet despite living a much healthier life than me, she struggles with her weight more than I ever have. But she’s the one who would be punished by Lincoln’s arbitrary policy.
Do the folks at Lincoln really think fat people haven’t picked up on the fact that society thinks they’re horribly unhealthy and undesirable? That’s not a problem. To pick one study, “[o]ver half of the females studied between ages eighteen and twenty-five would prefer to be run over by a truck than to be fat.”[1. Gaesser, Glenn A., Big Fat Lies. (2001).] (Emphasis added).
I’m sure Lincoln’s intentions were good. They’re trying to help people be healthy. Healthy = thin! Everyone must be thin! (By the way, an APA study found the death rate for eating disorders to be between 5 and 20 percent.[2. “Practice Guidelines for Eating Disorders,” American Journal of Psychiatry 150(2) (1993).] But at least they died thin!)
If you want to add a class on lifestyle and healthy eating, that’s one thing. Having seen what people pay for diets and weight loss programs, the class should fill up fast. But to force everyone with a BMI of 30 to take your class, or else they can’t graduate? Sorry, Lincoln. Your bigotry and ignorance are showing. Just ask the the Mayo Clinic:
“[O]verweight patients had better survival rates and fewer heart problems than those with a normal BMI. This apparently perverse result, drawn from data from 40 studies covering 250,000 people with heart disease, did not suggest that obesity was not a health threat but rather that the 100-year-old BMI test was too blunt an instrument to be trusted.” [3. “Body Mass Index (BMI) Badly Flawed.” http://www.preventdisease.com/news/articles/081806_bmi.shtml (2006).] (Emphasis added).
Can obesity be a health risk? Sometimes, sure. But if you think that gives us the right to judge, condemn, and punish everyone who doesn’t conform to our screwed-up ideal of human beauty? Well, I’m planning a mandatory logic class for everyone with an HUA (Head Up Ass) score greater than 30, and you just qualified.
November 30, 2009 @ 9:35 am
The more I hear about this more I keep thinking this was something that sounded like a good idea when they first started talking about it and then got warped into a horrific potentially traumatizing thing.
Its one thing to privately tell the students, ‘Look your BMI is higher then recommended for your age/weight/height so we think it might be beneficial for you to take this optional course that can help you maybe find ways to change your lifestyle enough to lower it. No pressure, its completely optional, but we do recommend it. Or for you to see your regular doctor to find ways.’ or to even announce that if you’re a student of over 30 BMI there’s a course you can take to help you lower it. Its completely another to basically tell them ‘you lose at life because you can’t control your weight’. Not only that but they lose at academics too.
Like you explained, for some people its not a matter of how they live or how healthy they eat or how much exercise they get–genetics can kick your ass and often there’s nothing you can do (safely) to counteract it. If your family is pre-disposed to large hips despite healthy living, you’ll have large hips. Plus there are medicines that can effect your weight and ability to lose/gain it (my mom was on a number of epilepsy meds that caused her to gain almost 50 pounds despite the fact she was eating healthier then ever and exercising regularly).
Jim C. Hines
November 30, 2009 @ 11:08 am
I’d be reluctant even with that, as it involves people with no medical training trying to look at a student and make decisions about that student’s health. If a doctor who knows the student’s health recommends weight loss, that’s one thing. (Though doctors can get stuck on weight too, but that’s another rant.) But for university adminsitrators to be making that call … I’m just not comfortable with that idea.
I don’t have anything wrong with offering the course. Heck, I’d love to see more classes on health and lifestyle. But as soon as administration starts trying to pick and choose who should be taking that class, I think it gets problematic.
Like you, I believe this started with the best of intentions, and I can respect that. I just think they’re riding those good intentions straight down the road to hell.
November 30, 2009 @ 12:10 pm
If they required all students to take the class, I’d be okay with it. What they’re basically saying is “fat people fail, here’s a remedial class to help you out.” As someone of the larger set, I climb three floors of stairs daily for my job (there’s no elevator for people, only cargo). And I do it several times in a day, sometimes carrying up to 50lbs. And I have a BMI of 36 (according to the Wii Fit). My problem? Too much high fructose corn syrup in the food and I no longer march five miles a day carrying a tuba. Also too many years of having to eat cheap calories.
And my guess is I could work any of those administrators who came up with this policy into the ground (day job, night job, and did I mention the freelance design all before I get to the trying to start a career as a writer). I know this from experience working 72 hours straight and having my thinner coworkers fall by the wayside until I was left to carry the ball across the finish line. And doing it more than once.
There are also medical conditions which lead to a greater chance of obesity, such as those that affect the thyroid, family history, those that affect the glucose levels in the blood or digestion. I’ve been working three years now to lose this weight (because of the early signs of diabetes). If it were as easy as taking a class, I’d be all for it.
On NPR they had an interview with the President of Lincoln (I believe it was him) where the interviewer asked how they’ve adjusted the cafeteria menu in regard to this policy. The answer was basically, “Well, we’re on a budget, so we have to serve cheap calories and high fat foods.” Yeah, great way to not be all duplicitous there.
Jim C. Hines
November 30, 2009 @ 3:32 pm
I missed that part of the interview. I think I’m glad…
Yeah, this whole thing is problematic all over the place.
November 30, 2009 @ 7:54 pm
Based on my own college experiences, I’d bet that even many of the “thin” students aren’t eating particularly healthily or exercising enough – especially if they are eating in the student cafeteria (*boggles at the hypocrisy*). In fact, I remember many of the young women in my dorm going on crazy fad diets, which, as you point out, are not very healthy in and of themselves. Graduating from college can be so stressful – finishing your coursework, finding a job or applying for grad school, contemplating being a real-life adult – it seems ridiculous to add another requirement. Especially one that only applies to a subset of students.
And how does the requirement work – if you gain five pounds before then end of your senior year and your BMI increases from 29 to 30, are you expected to make up the class?
December 1, 2009 @ 10:22 am
Oops, my mistake, the interview was with Dr. DeBoy, Chairman of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
“Lincoln, as an HBCU, is underfunded… How do you keep costs in line? Unfortunately, one way to cut is that you have food that is going to probably be less costly. Healthy foods cost more; that’s a reality.”
December 1, 2009 @ 5:54 pm
As someone who left the military and had their thyroid implode in the same year (the latter going undetected for three years), I put on 80# in 12 months. I’m on more synthroid than anyone I know – and it’s still hard keeping my weight anywhere in line.
(Mind you, I also have a sweet tooth, crave carbs, and hate exercising – but kept myself around 210# until the above combination hit me in 2001.)
Jim C. Hines
December 2, 2009 @ 9:25 am
I’m not sure. Based on what I read, and it’s possible this was incomplete, I got the sense there was a one-time BMI measurement, and if it was 30 or higher, you had to take the class. But I really don’t know the details.