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A women's college in Pennsylvania stirred up controversy after the school's health center sent targeted emails to every student with an elevated body mass index (BMI), encouraging them to sign up for a school-sponsored wellness program to work off the pounds.

Julie Mazziotta
February 04, 2015

Imagine your employer sent you a personal email saying they noticed you'd gained a few pounds recently and they'd like you to sign up for Weight Watchers. How would you react?

A group of students at Bryn Mawr College faced a comparable conundrum after the school's health center sent targeted emails to every student with an elevated body mass index (BMI), encouraging them to sign up for a school-sponsored wellness program to work off the pounds.

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As a 2013 graduate of the Pennsylvania women's college, I'm glad this email never landed in my inbox. “We want YOU to be in the Fitness OWLS (Onward to Weight Loss Success) Program,” the message read. "The Athletic Department, Dining Services and Health Center are collaborating to offer a fitness program for student (sic) with elevated BMIs." Or in other words: Hey, we noticed you're fat; here's some unsolicited advice.

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Because the college made the list from data on weight and height collected at the health center, many students said it was an invasion of privacy; some described it as "fat-shaming" or "body-policing." Making matters worse, the health center also managed to “incorrectly” send an invitation to one junior struggling with an eating disorder. The student, English major Rudrani Sarma, wrote to the college to complain and was quickly issued an apology explaining her BMI was miscalculated.

Yikes.

We all know that obesity is (literally) an enormous problem for everyone. But administrators were wrong to focus solely on BMI; as a lone health metric it's just not that helpful. As the CDC explains: “BMI is not a diagnostic tool…a person may have a high BMI. However, to determine if excess weight is a health risk, a healthcare provider would need to perform further assessments.”

And that's the real bummer here: the program itself, which lasts eight weeks and offers students counseling, nutrition advice, and a fitness plan, sounds like a great resource for anyone who wants to get healthier, regardless of weight status. Somehow I doubt that message will get across now.

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