Saturday, August 30, 2008

Suffer the little children


The latest "SmartSummary" from our much-hated health insurer arrived in the mail yesterday. I'm sure one reason our premiums are so high is that they periodically generate an 8-page booklet for each member of the family, replete with all sorts of useless information.

The piece that really burned my boat was this page, which arrived only with my 8th-grader's package. Let's take a minute to deconstruct this noxious document, shall we?

First, take note of the underlying threatening tone of the introduction. In case you can't read the scan, here it is:

Before you go back to school, take a minute to think about how sitting in class means you'll need more time for physical activity outside of school to stay healthy. Use this Body Mass Index (BMI) to figure out if you're in a healthy weight range, then you can see how to burn more calories and eat healthier in a way that fits your lifestyle.

Ths little gem offends on a variety of criteria, starting with the grammatical and syntactical errors (comma splice, word repetition, and excess verbiage). It then moves on to emotinal blackmail. Sitting in class leads to not staying healthy, unless you add more physical activity. There's a not-so-implicit threat here: You've got to burn off every minute you spend sitting on your tush and studying, kids.

For a kid like my older daughter, who likes to play by the rules and do everything "right," this notion could be enough to trigger a lifelong eating disorder, not to mention a fear of school and studying. And who's to say that each kid isn't already plenty physically active? The summary assumes that kids aren't getting enough exercise. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But this piece of paper sure as hell doesn't know.

Moving down the page, notice the list titled "Burn the Calories." One of the most egregious ideas behind the whole "wellness" movement is the idea that you can quantify and generalize in this way. Whereas anyone with a whiff of education on the subject knows that this depends not only on the size and age of the person in question but on his/her particular metabolism. Yet this paper confidently announces that a half hour of soccer burns 238 calories. Bullshit.

The eating disorder triggers continue on the bottom left of the page, where my daughter is told that 1 small cheeseburger would take 29 minutes of jogging to "burn off." There's a lot wrong here, starting with the idea that every bite you take must be "burned off." That's like saying every gallon gas you put into your car must be used immediately. Then there's the implicit idea that the foods listed here--plain "donut" (sic), cheeseburger, piece of pie, fried chicken sandwich--are bad for you and must be routed from your system asap.

Finally there's the ubiquitous BMI calculator and BMI chart. Once more with feeling: The idea of "ranges" is beside the point, especially for growing children. What's healthy for one child at one point in her life will not be the same as what's healthy for another child, or for the same child six months later.

I call this Bullshit 101. And I'm ever so glad my hard-earned money will no longer be going toward creating such appalling crap.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

You should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection
www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/fitness/ The Bureau has an entire program devoted to bogus diet and weight loss advertisements. Nothing may come of it, but it would be nice for this insurer to get a call from the Feds asking it to justify this BS.

Lisa said...

How frustrating. Apparently your insurer didn't take into account how expensive eating disorders can be to treat. Unless, of course, they don't cover those, in which case they don't care.

Harriet said...

Good idea, anon. I'll check it out.

Lisa, they cover almost nothing of an e.d. We paid for nearly all our daughter's treatment ourselves. Right you are to point that out.

Anonymous said...

The other thing I find really troubling about this is that even those authorities that believe BMI is a useful piece of information, such as the CDC and NIH, say that the categories they use for adults aren't meant to apply to children under age 21 (they have a whole set of BMI-for-age growth curves, so the BMI those organizations want kids to be at is different with each passing *month* as they grow up). Yet the adult categories and cutoffs are what's presented here. Even *within* the world of mainstream obesity panic, that part of the document is bogus.

Harriet said...

*What she said.*

isabel said...

I wish I could add something, but really I just want to say this entire post rules.

ricki said...

the college where I teach has recently started a "wellness initiative." So far the only propaganda from them has been a push to do volunteer work (?), but I am very very afraid that we will soon start getting the "reduce your BMI" pressure along with this kind of glossy propaganda.

And yeah, I am enough of a rule-follower that I am bugged at having a BMI of 31 and being told all the time that's "too big." It's like, I have to fight against the temptation to give in and believe that I am somehow defective because that is the message I am getting from society. And I'm not sure I have the energy to keep fighting it if my workplace starts telling me I'm 'defective' because of my size.

Michelle O'Neil said...

Excellent post. Total bullshit. Something about it smacks of those days when the school nurse would weigh everyone and read the # out loud.

I found you on Lisa Romeo's blog. Nice to meet you!

Harriet said...

Nice to meet you too, Michelle! Stop back again! I'm afraid the world makes this kind of blogging all too easy. . . .

Kristin said...

Wow is all I can say. Wow.

I'll be adding you to my blog roll, hope that's okay.

Harriet said...

I'm honored, Kristin. :-)

Anonymous said...

Ugh. speaking of the dreaded BMI chart, don't you love how the "underweight" category is mysteriously missing?