A SHIVER ran down my spine when I read that the much-dreaded school weigh-ins are set to make a return in England. The results of lockdown have apparently seen children’s weight on an upward trajectory again. Online schooling, less exercise and easy access to snacks has meant that for some children the last year and a half has brought their weight to the fore, and the government is keen to take action. But, are weigh-ins and the resultant impact on both children and their parents really the most helpful way forward?

My own P6 weigh-in was easily one of the most miserable experiences of my childhood, and lead to a lifetime of battles with food. My parents, coming from a relatively poor background in Pakistan, saw plentiful food as a sign that they had ‘made it’ in their new lives in Scotland. So there was always delicious home-cooked food, rice, chapatis and every curry known to mankind.

In a nod to 'being integrated’ we adopted deserts like apple pie, custard and chocolate snacks as treats, alongside an abundance of fruit and vegetables. For nine glorious years my mum and I had no idea that my cheeky chops, triple chin and wibbly stomach was anything other than ‘cute’ and a sign that my parents were doing well for their four children.

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The day of the weigh-in is etched on my brain: the slow realisation, as the weights were loudly called out, that, not only was I going to be heavier than the heaviest boy, there was a clear and present danger that I might be heavier than the very svelte teacher.

I wanted to shout out that I was the tallest in the class by a country mile and was the descendent of Kashmiri hill people – all six footers and built like giant redwood trees – but instead my seven and a half stones was plotted on a bar chart amid titters and sideways glances around the class – the shame was real, the stigma was real and a life long anxiety about my weight was born.

Arguments against weigh-ins centre around the very public nature of these weigh-ins and yes, that could be deeply damaging. Children starting to think about their weight and body image, and comparing it with others at too early an age can’t be good for them psychologically.

But weigh-ins have changed since 1975. They are no longer in front of the whole class and the shameful evidence will not be drawn on a bar chart on the classroom wall for the longest three months ever. These days the data is privately gathered and no child is identifiable when the data goes for analysis. The emphasis is on help and advice for parents.

Some however, argue that even the mere focus on weight and the inevitable comparisons by kids could see some children adversely affected by the experience and make them and their parents feel ‘fat-shamed’ and embarrassed.

But the reality is that Scotland has some of the highest obesity rates in the OECD. Nearly a quarter of P1 pupils in Scotland are at risk being overweight or obese and are likely to stay obese into adulthood bringing with it health issues like type 2 diabetes, asthma, cancer and poor mental health associated with lower wellbeing and self esteem during their childhood years.

The cost to the NHS in Scotland is estimated as between £363m and £600m. We’re going to have to overcome a bit of embarrassment if we want to have an honest conversation about how we’re going to improve these children’s health.

What my own ‘fat-shaming' experience did was that it forced me to speak to mum about my weight and she then realised there might be a problem. But medical experts were not ready for this in the late 1970s. Our kindly but portly GP weighed me and laughed out loud, which wasn’t exactly helpful.

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Nowadays, there are dieticians, action plans and other expert advice for those that need help. Whilst it’s true to say that I’ve never managed to get on top of the weight issue, yo-yo dieting my whole life up and down the scales and generally having a pretty dysfunctional relationship with my weight, it definitely educated me when it came to my own children.

I learnt from the mistakes my parents made. I didn’t feel the need to fill their plates with as much as possible to prove that food was plentiful – right from the start there was a bit of portion control; I tried hard not to use chocolates and other snacks as a treat or reward, and never – as my mum had after the weight issue was revealed – locked such goodies away as if they were some scarce and much-prized resource.

I replicated mum’s habit of always cooking homemade food, even when I was exhausted after a long day at work. A carry-out was, and still is, a rare event. Lastly, I made a pact with myself that although I thought about little else, I never commented on my weight or their weight to them, something which many of the other young mums, even those who were not overweight found very hard to do.

Subsequently, despite being descendants of giant Kashmiri hill people, neither had to fear the school weigh-in, public or not, but as for their mother…the diet definitely starts next week.

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