'Do they think I'm fat?': The way we talk about health with children matters

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A US mother has complained to her local news station after her daughter's school sent home a letter suggesting her "child's health be examined by a physician".

When Laura Cacdac's daughter Charley received a letter in her bag regarding her health, though it was intended for her parents, Cacdac claims her six-year-old read it first.

Cacdac told WPTV her first question was "do they think I'm fat? Is there something wrong with me?"

Health screening at Palm Beach Gardens Elementary is required by law, reports WPTV.

The letter read: "From the results of this test, it is suggested that your child's health be examined by a physician, particularly as it relates to the problem suggested by the screening. A problem such as this that goes uncorrected or untreated can severely affect both the health and academic performance of your child."

Furious, the mother rang the school's nurse who explained Charley's Body Mass Index (BMI) was high.

Cacdac also said the nurse suggested her daughter was overweight according to state standards.

"It is basically in my opinion telling me I am harming my child and doing wrong by her and then telling me how to properly feed my child." she said.

After a trip to the doctor, Cacdac said Charley was not overweight and is, in fact, healthy.  

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"My child's favourite foods are avocados, broccoli and apples...she is perfectly healthy in every way: emotionally, physically, and academically," said Cacdac.

Despite this, Mommyish writer Maria Guido said it was Cacdac's reaction that was most damaging.

During the news report, Cacdac's daughter read out the letter on camera. Something Guido said "is more traumatising than bringing a letter home that she probably didn't comprehend to begin with."

That said, Guido doesn't think it's a good idea for schools to send correspondence home with kids.

"But I think an even worse idea, is mothers who react as if being slightly overweight is the worst thing that could befall a child. What kind of message are we sending here?"

While Cacdac has opted out of future screenings Boca pediatrician Andrew Reiss said health screens are important.

"I think it helps families focus on healthy habits," Dr Reiss said.

BMI is a calculated by age, weight and height and sometimes "we tell people don't worry everything is fine," said Dr Reiss. 

"But sometimes there is something that can be done better and we involve kids in that discussion," he said.

Treat Yourself Well clinical psychologist, Louise Adams, M.A.P.S. said she agreed with everything Cacdac was thinking and feeling – except for putting her daughter on camera and "not protecting the child from the letter a little bit more."

But the real issue is the message health reports send to kids. 

Though the BMI report card is standard in the US, Adams said, "Even for adults it's a clumsy measure of health."

Lots of kids go through growth spurts and sometimes when kids are identified in the "so-called overweight category" there's no link to being unhealthy.

Another problem with these reports is the stigma that comes with it.

"The kid said, 'Is something wrong with me?' Which is what these reports are saying, that's there's something wrong with your child," said Adams.

"That's a terrible message to get about your body when you are a child," she said.

And things like these shoudn't be ignored.

"Messages from school saying something is wrong with your body is going to have an impact on your body image and we know that stigmatising people because of their weight is really unhelpful and doesn't lead to kids taking care of themselves, it can lead to dieting which is a really strong predictor of eating disorders," said Adams.

In fact, Adams said weight doesn't need to be mentioned in school except in very postive body diversity messages. 

Reciting some lines from the book, My Body Is Awesome, Adams said, "Some people are tall, some people are short some people are fat, some people are thin and no one is better."

"We are all different types of flowers and that's how our bodies come."

Sending home a BMI based health report gives the message that something is wrong with your body. 

"It will just stigamise kids and make terrible assumptions about health," said Adams.

Instead, Adams message to people is to pay attention to behaviours not weight loss.

"If you can simply look after your body a bit better by moving a little more that's all you need."