Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
On the 20th of June 2021, Boris Johnson’s government announced that from September primary-school children are going to be weighed on a regular basis. The announcement of the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) comes from fears that childhood obesity rates will skyrocket due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Taken at face value, it may seem as though this decision has been made with the interests of children at heart. When one stops to consider this further, they realise that weigh-ins for children would be harmful, damaging and frankly fatphobic.
I will not deny that child obesity is a dangerous problem, or that it is on the rise, with one in five primary-school age children classed as overweight before the pandemic. What the government is ignoring, however, are the long-term effects of the policy, and alternative avenues that could be taken.
By weighing young, impressionable children through an turbulent time in their physical and mental development, the government risks setting up an entire generation for food and body image issues. In the era of social media, children are the most vulnerable to diet culture and the weight loss industry. A study has found that one in five primary-school aged girls have been on a diet, and 47% of 11-14 year olds have excluded themselves from physical activities because they do not like how they look. This same study found that 87% of young girls believe that they are judged more on appearance than ability. The startling statistics do not end there and do not just affect young girls. 26% of girls, and one in seven boys, are reported to have restricted their food intake in secret. Perhaps the most salient statistic is that one in ten teenage girls have ‘extreme levels of fear’ about gaining weight.
These shocking and demoralising statistics paint a sad picture of the mental state of the next generation. Social media, societal pressures and deep-rooted fatphobia have already reached the most impressionable and vulnerable in society, so why worsen it with these proposed weigh-ins?
Johnson claimed that this policy would combat the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, but he is choosing to see only one side of the issue. In the last year, the NHS has reported 2,682 admissions of children aged 17 and under with eating disorder diagnoses. This 34% increase is a direct result of the lockdown. In addition to this, more children and young people have been treated for body image issues than ever before. Despite this, the Tory government continues to slash funding for the NHS and community-based mental health treatment.
Choosing to centre the conversation on children’s health and well-being solely on weight endangers the mental health of the next generation. Regardless of how discreet these weigh-ins may be, the focus will be on the number on the scale, something children will likely carry throughout their adult life. To truly improve the health of the younger generation, the government has to look at the root causes. Children, and even parents, could be educated in nutrition so they are able to make informed decisions. Poverty and food pricing needs government attention, as healthy food and vegetables can be unattainable for those living under the poverty line. Mental health services need to be improved. There is so much that requires attention and funding from the government – none of which include subjecting the nation’s children to damaging weigh-ins.