Bryn Mawr Debacle Highlights Weight-Centric Approach to “Health”

Editorial Board

Trigger Warning: This editorial contains discussion of eating disorders and body image. 

A troubling Health Center email sent to students with “elevated” BMIs, encouraging them to “Give a HOOT” about their body size, generated protests and unfavorable press at Bryn Mawr College in late January. “We want YOU to be in the Fitness OWLS (Onward to Weight Loss Success) Program,” read the message, noting that the program was a partnership between the Bryn Mawr health center and the school’s athletic department and dining services. Health Center Director Kay C. Kerr issued a written apology for the message last Saturday, but not before the incident drew renewed attention to discussions of health and wellness on college campuses.

Bryn Mawr’s “fitness” campaign raises numerous concerns, not least of which is its flawed targeting criterion: the BMI, or body mass index, a simplistic heightand weight-based figure that remains widely used, although it is frequently criticized as an inadequate indicator of problems with weight or general health. While Bryn Mawr is not alone in its use of the outdated figure — which was initially designed only for men and for use only in large-scale population research — the college’s mass email scheme was uniquely invasive. Making matters worse, the students’ BMIs were apparently calculated from vitals recorded during often unrelated Health Center visits. Many recipients had never expressed interest in weight loss programs; some had even visited the Health Center while recovering from eating disorders and found the personalized, unsolicited message triggering.

According to some students, the message is just the latest in a saga of misguided “health” initiatives the college has implemented, including reductions in plate and cup sizes in dining halls. Kerr’s apology, which noted the Health Center’s commitment to respecting student privacy and creating a “culture of health, balance and wellness” on campus, fell short of acknowledging the stigmatizing and sometimes triggering nature of its weight loss-centered approach to student wellness.

The timing of Bryn Mawr’s missteps is both ironic and revealing. The last week of February marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and incidents like this highlight the continued reinforcement of toxic standards for body size and beauty, which have been found to contribute to eating disorders. In addition to their pervasive subliminal presence in media images and advertising, ideals of slenderness and low weight are too often explicitly packaged under the guise of “health” or “fitness.”

Recent benchmarks, however, offer hope that progress is being made. Last month, another story also made internet headlines: Tess Holliday, who stands at 5 feet 5 inches and wears a size 22, broke boundaries as the first woman of her size to be signed by a high-profile modeling agency.

Despite the historic contract, Holliday has seen her share of criticism. “I wish that more people were talking about the success and the fact that this is really hopefully changing my industry — and it already has changed my industry — instead of turning it around about a discussion about how healthy I am,” she said. “I mean, yes, people can talk about health, and I do work out because I enjoy it, but I feel like what we really need to be talking about is the fact that women of all ages and sizes and shapes are feeling the need to live up to unrealistic expectations.”

Like Holliday, the affected Bryn Mawr students have found the privacy of their bodies violated, subjected to unreliable standards of “health” and open to unsolicited feedback. Colleges and universities should treat health as a key factor in student success, but outreach efforts like those at Bryn Mawr, while administrators claim good intentions, are paternalistic and disempowering. Colleges face genuine challenges when attempting to match health and wellness programs to student needs, but a college’s good intentions must neither invade the personal nature of health decisions nor impose beauty standards poorly disguised as wellness initiatives.