By Mary K. Stein, Managing Editor
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
January/February 2010 Volume 21, Number 1
©2010 Gürze Books
Recently, five major eating disorders organizations joined forces to speak out against a university whose practice was singling out obese students. Last December, the Academy for Eating Disorders, the Binge Eating Disorder Association, the Eating Disorders Coalition, the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals and the National Eating Disorders Association joined forces to advocate for a focus on health and lifestyle rather than weight as a measurement of well-being.
The action came after news stories reported that Lincoln University, near Oxford, PA, had taken a new strategy to combat rising weights among young students by requiring students to be weighed during their freshman year. At Lincoln University, freshmen were required to be weighed as soon as they arrived on campus. If the student had a body mass index (BMI, kg/m2) over 30, he or she would be required to take a course entitled “Fitness for Life.” Students could graduate from the course by reducing their BMIs or by playing a sport. A number of students faced not being able to graduate because they hadn’t fulfilled the weight-related course requirements.
The University Overturns the Requirement
In mid-December, amid the criticism from many groups in addition to the eating disorders organizations, Lincoln’s faculty voted to scrap the requirement, making the class optional for all students. Some faculty argued that the required “Fitness for Life” course was discriminatory. However, the University’s President, Ivory V. Nelson, said that the faculty’s decision to try to curtail obesity among African-American students was commendable. (A large number of the students at the university are African-Americans). Dr. Nelson told the faculty members, “Your actions in 2006 to address the issue on this campus were the right thing to do.” He then added, “What you all have done was courageous. Although, no matter what the good intent of something is, controversy can still occur.” Lincoln’s policy garnered international media attention, with some arguing that despite its good intentions, the policy was not well conceived. Others wondered if the university was setting itself up for legal challenges by students who refused to take the gym course.
James L. DeBoy, the chairman of Lincoln’s Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, had urged the faculty to stay the course and keep the current requirement in place, but he was unsuccessful in convincing his colleagues to support the initiative. DeBoy, who fiercely defended the BMI requirement, sent a memo to faculty members outlining reasons why such a policy was needed.
At the end of the day, the faculty agreed that the BMI assessment test will no longer be used to place students into the “Fitness for Life” course. The faculty also agreed that instructors will cover a multiplicity of health risk topics in HPR 101, the “Dimensions of Wellness” a course required of all Lincoln University students. In the future, the faculty members will recommend the “Fitness for Life” course to students with potential health risks, but enrollment will not be mandatory.
Putting the Focus on Health, Not Weight
The five professional eating disorders organizations recommended that school administrators, employers, and health policy makers focus more
on health and lifestyle for all populations rather than focusing upon an individual’s body weight. Although the effort was well-intentioned, the focus on weight is believed to lead to weight prejudice and also neglects groups that might be in equal need of improving their health and lifestyle, according to the Eating Disorders Coalition. Academy for Eating Disorders President Susan Paxton, PhD, expressed concern that we have lost sight of the importance of avoiding harm in the process of addressing obesity. She also noted there is an opportunity to create a healthier environment, where people of all sizes are given the opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives, rather than singling out individual groups for reform based on weight alone.