Upcoming documentary sparks debate over BMI testing
By Matt Bayman
Photo: [l to r] Award-winning filmmaker Mike Webber, Bailey Webber and Maddy edit film for the upcoming release; photo: Serif Cinar
Most Americans agree there is an obesity problem in the United States. But whether or not children as young as kindergarten age should be subjected to government-mandated BMI (Body Mass Index) testing at school – and have the results sent home in the form of a letter that may state they are overweight – is a different story.
In fact, it’s a story 17-year-old Springboro High School junior Bailey Webber will explore in her upcoming full-length documentary film, “The Student Body.”
Two years ago, Bailey, whose father Mike Webber is an award-winning filmmaker best known for his documentary “The Elephant in the Living Room,” was looking for a film project of her own to work on. Then she met Maddy [last name withheld for privacy], a sixth grade student in the Springboro school district who received what students are now calling a “Fat Letter.”
Ohio Senate Bill 210 – known as “The Healthy Choices for Healthy Children Act” – requires BMI testing in public schools, and sending the results to parents in the mail. According to the Ohio Department of Health, the bill, which became law in September of 2010, contains provisions to combat childhood obesity in the next several years by increasing students’ physical activity, ensuring access to healthy meals and beverages at school and establishing a body mass index and weight status category screening program for students in kindergarten and grades 3, 5 and 9.
Lawmakers in more than 20 states have passed similar laws, but public outcry over the letters has sparked a national debate, and Webber is doing her part to shed more light on the issue, while also taking her first leap into motion pictures.
Maddy received her letter at home, addressed to her and included with her report card.
“As an A student, she was excited to see her report card, but then she finds a letter that says she is overweight and needs to go see her doctor,” Webber said. “To her, the letter was telling her she was fat. She was so furious she ripped it up and locked herself in her room for four hours. She was depressed for the entire summer. [The letter] made her feel like she was nothing.”
Maddy has human growth hormone deficiency and takes injections every day, which causes a fluctuation in her weight. This is one of many potential oversights in Ohio Senate Bill 210 that opponents of the law are speaking out against, as Maddy’s BMI testing results did not take into account her disorder or the other health-related factors she and other students may have.
Even though Maddy had ripped up the letter, her mother was able to retrieve it from the trash and piece it back together. She then read what the school nurse had reported about her daughter’s health and weight.
“[Maddy’s parents] were mortified the school was sending out this kind of information,” Webber said. “They watched their daughter go through a very hard summer. She wouldn’t go swimming. She became very self-conscious about her body and the way she looked.”
During the next school year, Maddy and her parents attended a Springboro Board of Education meeting and Maddy brought the letter to the board’s attention. To their surprise, none of the school board members seemed to know much about the letters.
“When I met Maddy, nobody knew why these letters were being sent out – the school board didn’t even know,” Webber said. “[To the school board, Maddy’s situation] seemed to be an isolated incident.”
However, according to Mike Webber, Maddy’s decision to speak out at the meeting “opened Pandora’s Box” – bringing the issue of “Fat Letters” to the public’s attention and opening the door for further debate about the law.
“If she hadn’t spoken out, I would have never known about it,” Bailey said of the law.
“You have to give this young lady a lot of credit. It takes a really brave person to stand up and say ‘I’m going to do something about this,’” Mike added.
Touched by Maddy’s story and her bravery, Bailey Webber now had the film project she was looking for. She immediately formed a bond with Maddy and began researching her project.
“The Student Body” tells the story of Bailey and her investigation into Ohio Senate Bill 210. It not only focuses on Maddy’s story, but features interviews with parents and school board members who disagree with the law, as well as state legislators, doctors, professors, psychologists and nutritionists from around the country on both sides of the issue. The film is being promoted as “a true underdog story of two brave girls who take a stand against government intrusion and hypocrisy while exploring the complex and controversial truths of the childhood obesity debate.”
“It’s a big conversation-starter about exposing the law and finding out what’s going on,” Mike Webber said. “It also explores other ways of dealing with the problem [of obesity]. No one is saying this is not an issue; it’s what the government is doing about it and whether it is good for students.”
Mike said the mandated school programs have the potential for major negative consequences for students and the public.
“The approach [to the health screening process at the schools] is very backwards,” Mike said. “Weight shouldn’t be the primary focus. Your height and weight doesn’t take into account other health factors, and it leaves a bunch of kids out of the equation. What about under-weight kids, or kids who eat terrible but are not heavy? We need to focus on the overall health of the individual, not just their weight.”
Additionally, Mike said students who receive a “Fat Letter” could potentially do unhealthy things to adjust their weight, including develop an eating disorder.
“From talking with doctors and nutritionists, we learned [this program] is exactly what you don’t do,” Mike said. “It has the potential to add more problems that didn’t exist before. This includes kids doing things like crash dieting and [developing] anorexia, not to mention the psychological impact of addressing a sensitive personal issue in a completely insensitive way.”
Bailey said teenagers already face impossible standards of beauty due to the portrayal of young men and women in magazines and on television, and that receiving a “Fat Letter” only compounds these standards.
“There is a societal-pressure on kids,” Webber said. “They think that healthy means skinny and pretty. It’s also not something that just affects girls. It’s a problem for male and female students.”
“Fat Letters” also have the potential to increase other social issues faced by young people.
“There are concerns about bullying,” Webber continued. “Aren’t these letters just another form of bullying? Maddy was brave enough to speak out, but how many students are too afraid to admit they received a letter because they don’t want to be made fun of?”
Mike said Maddy was fortunate in her situation because she had the support of her family.
“Her family was thoughtful about the experience and turned it into a positive life-lesson,” he said. “Imagine kids who don’t have the support of their families or friends, or who don’t have anyone to turn to. What are they going to do? How are they dealing with this?”
These are just some of the questions Bailey will address in “The Student Body” documentary.
Recently, Ohio removed the mandate portion of the law, while leaving the framework in place for schools that wish to voluntarily perform the tests and continue to send notification letters to do so. In fact, some supporters of the bill still recommend schools in Ohio do this. At the same time, many other states around the country are adopting similar laws, causing increased exposure in the national media.
“We thought this was a local issue, but since [Bailey] started work on the film, [the subject] has received national and even international attention,” Mike said. “We’ve actually received letters of encouragement and support from people in Argentina, France, Germany, Ireland. They know we’re making the film and they’re very supportive of it because similar attitudes are concerning them, too. In the United States, [‘Fat Letters’] have been discussed nationally on ‘CBS Morning News,’ ‘Fox News,’ ‘Good Morning America’ and on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ It’s striking a nerve with parents, students and those in the health care industry.”
As a 10-year filmmaking veteran, Mike said a powerful documentary is one that tells a great story and also raises awareness of an issue.
“When you wrap these two things together, you have a powerful medium to entertain and educate,” he explained. “You can literally change the world.”
“The Student Body” is set for release in November of this year and will be featured at film festivals, theatrical releases, video-on-demand, iTunes and Netflix, among other venues. Bailey is the writer and co-director of the film and is joined by her father, who is also co-directing and producing the documentary.
For more information about “The Student Body,” please visit thestudentbodyfilm.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Bayman at MattBayman @DaytonCityPaper.com.