April 6, 2016

An Open Letter to Tessa Embry

A recent post about an eighth grade girls response to a health quiz question about BMI has gone viral. Buzzfeed picked up the story and posted their own article and there are some things I'd like to say as a physical educator.

Dear Tessa,

     I'm so sorry your physical educators failed to fully explain the purpose and flaws behind BMI when teaching you. It hurts me deeply to know the environment you are in is making you feel uncomfortable or judged. I am a physical educator who teaches middle school students like yourself in Virginia and I, like your PE teacher, teach my students about BMI. I encourage you, and anyone else reading, to hang with me through this letter... I have a lot to say.

     When I teach my students about BMI, we talk about how it takes your weight to height ratio, places it on a correlated chart, and then slaps a category title on you. We talk about how BMI works for many individuals when it comes to accuracy, but we also go over that it is not the best, nor most accurate indicator for all individuals and body types. We teach BMI in health because it is easy to use and does apply to many people. It is also free, requires no equipment, and people from all walks of life have access to it. The key point I always articulate to my students is that individuals who have larger muscle mass are going to be labeled inaccurately. We talk about how a pound of muscle takes up 75% less space than a pound of fat in the body, we discuss how that variable is not included in the calculation, and we emphasize that BMI does not in fact define them.

     Now, in middle school (which I've already told you I teach), none of my students are muscularly developed professional athletes. Most are experiencing puberty and are just beginning to show muscular growth, but not to the dramatic extent of a fully mature adult, like a professional football player or marathon runner. Because of this, BMI is typically accurate for middle school students (there are ALWAYS exceptions to this rule and I make sure to explain that as I mentioned above). It is important to recognize when the scale is inaccurate for you, but that doesn't mean the entire topic isn't worth teaching or learning about. 

     In fact, in addition to BMI, I also educate my students about skin calibrators, bod pods, digital hand calibrators, and other forms of measurement that more accurately measure body fat percentage than BMI. Sadly, most school districts don't have funding to acquire most of these devices in public schools. It is critically important for us as health and physical educators to ensure we pass on skills to our students that allow them to be happy and healthy. We discuss nutrition, various body systems, health and skill related fitness, among many other important topics that include BMI.

     It truly saddens me to see how "old PE" still impacts the lives of students. There is a revolution in our industry, "new PE," that recognizes these bad influences and makes every effort to educate efficiently to build healthy children and adults, both mentally and physically. I sincerely hope that one negative experience will not impact you and your opinion on health and sport for the remainder of your life. 

The Sassy PE Teacher

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