THE REAL WEIGHT OF THE NCMP
By Jade Elouise
Think of children as young as 4, each with a different ethnic, cultural and socio-economic background, being placed into small groups with their peers based on their age and where they live. At this pivotal time in their development, when they are still learning to define who they are and how they fit into their community, they start to find themselves navigating the ups and downs of developing friendships while learning about themselves and the world around them.
Sounds like a lot for someone so young, right?
Now picture those children not only having to navigate all of this, but also having to deal with being weighed and measured in school at ages 4-5 and again at 10-11. And after they are weighed, they are sent home a letter telling them whether they are too fat or too thin compared to other children their age, or whether they are ‘normal’.
You may be able to tell just how passionately I feel about the lack of necessity for the NCMP; that is partly because of how deeply impacted I was by it when I was a child.
Can you imagine something so damaging to the development of a young child? To their ability to eat intuitively and exist contentedly within their own bodies?Well, we don’t have to imagine it. That is the experience of many children across the UK, and has been for some time, who are being weighed under the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). If you’re not familiar with the NCMP, it is an annual national program which measures the height and weight of children in reception and year 6, to “assess ‘overweight’ and ob*sity levels in children within primary schools.” You may have experienced it yourself while in school. Or if not you, then maybe not siblings, nieces, nephews, or your own children have, at some point, experienced the emotional turmoil of being told that the size and shape of their body is ‘wrong’.
You may be able to tell just how passionately I feel about the lack of necessity for the NCMP; that is partly because of how deeply impacted I was by it when I was a child. The memory of being just ten years old and making a fasting pact with two of my friends, because we had each received a letter proclaiming us fat and unworthy of food, will never leave me. Thankfully, nor will the memory of a lovely teaching assistant finding out about our pact and sitting down with us with a plate of biscuits and telling us it was okay to eat (thank you, miss!)
The focus on weight in children needs to stop, we need to raise children to love and accept their bodies and understand that they change.
But I am also so passionate about this because I know it’s not just me who feels this way. To showcase this, I put a call out on Instagram for other people’s thoughts, and had an influx of messages from those who had experienced the negative impacts of the NCMP first-hand, either through being weighed under it themselves, or through their children. Here is what just a few people had to say:
- “Both my daughters were judged overweight at Reception age. Both were wearing the size clothing for their age, were slim, active, and healthy, and had a varied diet. By year 6 my eldest was very aware of her body (completely average) and her friends were talking about their weight in the run up and aftermath of the NCMP. She discovered that she weighed more than some others and it send her into a bit of disordered eating for a while which I’m still not sure we’ve come back from 2 years later.”
- “I have just opted out of my daughter (year 6) being measured in the NCMP after finding out how to via bodyhappyorg. My daughter was measured in her reception year and I was sent a letter to tell me my beautiful little girl was ob*se. I then received a phone call telling me the same by a rather rude person who insisted I needed help with what to feed my daughter as I must feed her rubbish. Sadly, it wasn’t taken into account that she was (and still is) extremely active, loves all sports and eats a well-balanced diet. She has a disability that can contribute to low muscle tone that wasn’t taken into consideration… The focus on weight in children needs to stop, we need to raise children to love and accept their bodies and understand that they change. In addition, we all need to help children to enjoy moving.”
- “I think the NCMP is so harmful, I know first-hand how it was for me. In year six I had it done, my parents got a letter to say I was ‘overweight’, my brother saw the letter and teased me and the whole ordeal triggered an eating disorder which to this day over 10 years later I struggle with. It’s so damaging, I hadn’t even considered my weight much before this, but has been an obsession ever since really. It knocked my self-esteem miles down and it never recovered, and I think parents should know what can happen from doing this (I don’t blame my parents at all). But I will 100% be opting my children out when they are older!”
And, as it turns out, these issues are not just limited to the UK:
- “We have a similar policy in Australia…that says anyone between 2 and 17yrs of age has to have their BMI measured every 3 months that they are engaged with a health service. I work in Community Health and no part of what I do has anything to do with a child’s height or weight, but I am still mandated to follow this policy (although I refuse to do it) … I had a 7yr old tell me they didn’t deserve to eat because they were too fat. Their mum said that a doctor had done the child’s height/weight and labelled them as “ob*se”, and the child had overheard and had since been obsessing about their food. That was enough to make me refuse to do this measurement ever again.”
I can almost guarantee that someone reading this is thinking that these are just isolated opinions, and don’t hold any weight (no pun intended) in determining the potential harm of weighing and measuring children to calculate their BMI (a measure shown to be a poor indicator of health within itself, fyi ). But, if lived experiences were not enough evidence, plenty of larger organisations have called for its reform, too.
As part of their #playnotweigh campaign, Any Body UK conducted a survey that showed 77% of parents “felt the current system of weighing and measuring children in school had not been helpful to them or their child, and 26% of parents felt that the NCMP had a negative impact on them or their child”. The eating disorder charity, Beat, also shared criticism of the NCMP, stating “this programme focuses on weight, not health, and can lead to poor body image and is a risk to children who may become vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.” In a 2020 report on government anti-ob*sity strategies, Beat called for “campaigns to follow the principle of “first, do no harm”, and to be subject to an assessment of the potential they have to trigger eating disorders”, amongst other changes.
Even if we overlooked the harm to young people’s mental health and self-perception (which, why would we?) there is also evidence to suggest that the NCMP isn’t exactly achieving its aims. Studies have shown that the results of the NCMP do not have any significant impact on the dietary behaviour of children. Additionally, while some ’ob*se’ children exercise more after getting their results back, no notable change in the physical activity of children in other weight categories has been shown. Considering one of the aims of the NCMP is to “be a vehicle for engaging with children and families about healthy lifestyles and weight issues” , I can’t help but wonder why promoting [joyful] exercise and varied nutritional intake for all children is not prioritised, rather than only targeting those considered ‘ob*se’. After all, a measure as arbitrary as weight cannot identify the depth of the physical health of a young person’s body (such as their cardiovascular and respiratory health), let alone their holistic mental, emotional, and social wellbeing.
There are also broader questions to be considered when it comes to weighing children: at what age should the burden of comparing body image be placed on children? What is ‘normal’, when the development of each child is unique? How are genetic differences and cultural norms being accounted for (hint: they’re not) in determining what is normal across thousands of children? Why are children being compared to their peers, rather than their individual physical development being monitored in the context of their own wellbeing? Isn’t it ableist to compare health at all? As some people will never achieve a socially desirable status of health due to disability or chronic illness. (Another hint: yes, yes it is… but some people aren’t ready for that conversation just yet…) *Sighs*.
It is devastating to me that, over a decade since I was weighed in school, the undue pressure and stress being put on young children to conform to a body ideal – when they aren’t even finished growing yet – is still not being considered, despite all of this evidence.
But, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Fortunately, there are some organisations out there that do recognise the importance of promoting positive body image in young people! The Body Happy Organisation, a social enterprise founded by Molly Forbes, offers tools and resources to parents and professionals on how to promote “positive body image environments for children to thrive in”  (Whoop whoop!!). In collaboration with Any Body UK, they recently shared more information on the NCMP and how you can opt your children out, in a free resource pack . The pack includes answers for questions such as “What is the NCMP, and will it affect my child?” and “What do experts say advise about this programme?”. Molly is also the author of the book Body Happy Kids, targeted towards anyone who would like to help children and teens love the skin they are in! Yes Molly!
As much as the NCMP is still a huge cause for concern, it makes me so happy to see adults advocating for children’s mental health and positive perceptions of their bodies. It’s so important that we continue to speak about these issues, educating ourselves and others on the facts and lived experiences of those impacted by this type of body shaming in the process. Even simply learning to feel neutral about your own body and modelling that to those around you, particularly vulnerable children and young people, will make a huge difference to fostering a culture of body acceptance in our communities.
And for those few who feel that body positivity and body neutrality do nothing but ‘promote obesity’… well. As a fat adult who was once a fat child, I can promise you one thing: body shame is not the way to promote ‘health’ (*cough* or thinness) in children. If it was, considering the discrimination, bullying, harassment, and disgust I have systematically faced since I was as young as two years old, from medical professionals, peers, and strangers alike… don’t you think I’d be thin by now?
Written by Jade Elouise
- Falconer, C.L., Park, M.H., Croker, H. et al.The benefits and harms of providing parents with weight feedback as part of the national child measurement programme: a prospective cohort study. BMC Public Health 14, 549 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-14-549