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This story is a little old (Inside Higher Ed carried the story on 20 November), but I can’t stop thinking about the levels of wrong involved, so I’m hauling it out in order to be pissed about them, and to enumerate them in public. Nothing like a blog to get things off your chest!

First up, here’s the low-down on what happened, according to Inside Higher Ed:

More than two dozen seniors at Lincoln University, in Oxford, Pa., are in danger of not being able to graduate this spring — not because they’re under disciplinary probation or haven’t fulfilled the requirements of their majors, but because they were obese as freshmen.

All had body mass index (BMI) scores above 30 — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ threshold for obesity — when they arrived on campus in the fall of 2006, but none have taken college-sanctioned steps to show they’ve lost weight or at least tried. They’re in the historically black university’s first graduating class required to either have a BMI below 30 or to take “Fitness for Life,” a one semester class that mixes exercise, nutritional instruction and discussion of the risks of obesity.

Now, there is a long tradition of colleges having physical health and well-being requirements as part of students’ general course of study — my undergraduate college, for one, had such a requirement (more on this below). While I have opinions about what definition of “health and well-being” a given school promotes, I see nothing egregious about encouraging students to be physically active and health-conscious, and giving them the information they need to make decisions about self-care and health care (for example: a component on patient advocacy might not go amiss!)

Singling individual students out, based solely on their body mass index (BMI) is something wholly different and wholly fucked up. As Kate Harding over at Salon wrote in You Must be Thin to Graduate

Like most such debates, [the Lincoln University story is] being framed quite simplistically — as a matter of public health vs. individual freedoms — with a number of important questions going unasked. Such as: Does BMI actually give a clear indication of an individual’s fitness level? No, for a number of reasons — e.g., BMI is only meant to give a general idea of weight distribution across a population; a large amount of muscle mass can make a person with relatively little body fat technically obese (Lincoln also uses waist measurements in an effort to weed these people out); and above all, fitness and fatness are not mutually exclusive.

On that last point, consider that Lincoln students are given the option of testing out of the class. If a number of students with BMIs over 30 can demonstrate a level of fitness that would make the course redundant, that should tell you right there that targeting fat people for remedial phys ed is discriminatory bullshit. If Lincoln wants to make a certain fitness level a general requirement for graduation, then blatant ableism aside, I guess that’s its prerogative. But why not test people irrespective of weight, and offer the course to those who are demonstrably unfit, rather than starting with the deeply flawed assumption that fat people are ignorant about physical activity, while everyone who falls below the obesity threshold is already sufficiently active?

I would add to what Harding says here (which I think is pretty much right on target) by pointing out that not only is this policy targeting people seen by our culture as overweight, it is ignoring people whose health is in jeopardy because of disordered eating or other health issues that put them below a body weight that would help them optimally flourish. Not to mention people who look and weigh a “normal” weight according to our culturally-conditioned filters, but who may be struggling with life-threatening conditions, either diagnosed or un-. Or whose quality of life is chronically undercut by a disordered relationship with food, exercise, and/or their own physical embodiment. (I speak from the perspective of someone for whom what I ate on a given day often during undergrad often had more bearing on my mood than any academic performance).

A fellow Women’s Studies major in my undergraduate program did her senior-year project on our own health class requirement (one that was expected of all students, regardless of physical health or body type), showing how obsessed the supposedly holistic curriculum was with thinness, and how it often exacerbated the disordered eating and exercise patterns of students already prone to obsessive or self-destructive behaviors. While modifications were made in the course curriculum to include resources on eating disorders and the dangers of being undernourished, when I took the class as a senior in 2005 the in-class message was blatantly and repeatedly the following:

1) As a college student you are surrounded by opportunities and pressures to make bad decisions about what to eat, with “bad decisions” primarily meaning “deciding to eat fatty foods.

2) As a college student, you are also surrounded by opportunities and pressures not to exercise, and therefore,

3) Between the lack of exercise and the fatty foods, unless you maintain constant vigilance you will become fat and unhealthy.

4) Oh, and by the way it’s also not good to be too skinny and if you think you might have an eating disorder contact the counseling center.

I have a beloved sister and several close friends with diagnosed eating disorders. Most of the women I know (myself included) have chronic — though less-than-clinically-critical — disordered relationships with food and our bodies. I can name half a dozen women who put off, or simply refuse to meet with, health professionals because they know that the first thing the doctor will see — regardless of their overall health — is how much they weigh. All health recommendations will be filtered through the doctor’s personal perception of whether the woman (or man) standing in front of him (or her) meets our cultural standard of “thin.” (Yes, I mean “cultural standard” not “science-based”; go read Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.)

Beyond arguments about the relationship between physical health and body weight, I think it’s critically important to highlight, bold, capitalize and underline the following: WEIGHT IS NOT A SIGN OF MORAL AND PROFESSIONAL FITNESS. People who suffer from physical or mental illness and disability are fully capable of completing programs of higher education and finding work in which they excel. To screen college students by weight and place an extra academic burden upon students deemed physically unfit is NOT OKAY.

To reiterate what Harding said in her piece at Salon, this should not be framed as a a case of individual rights versus collective well-being: neither is being furthered here by this policy. Helping young people to grow into compassionate, self-aware individuals who will (hopefully) have the generosity of spirit to make the world a better place should never, at any time, involve publicly punishing them for their physical appearance, health, or athletic capacity. Goodness knows, if they fail to meet the narrow standards of physical perfection demanded by our culture students already know before they hit college exactly, precisely, where they have failed at unattainable goal of effortless perfection. The last thing in the world they need is one more voice — this time with the weight of institutional authority — telling them they are less-than-worthy. Ceasing to harass them achieves the double goal of protecting individual rights to personal privacy while simultaneously making the case for a vision of the common good that encompasses all of our imperfect humanity, not just those who magically mystically meet the current physical ideal.