Should body mass index (BMI) be used as a college graduation requirement?

It’s official. America hates fat people.

Human beings are constantly searching for socially sanctioned reasons to feel superior to others and in 2009, those who are thin feel mighty superior to those who are not. How else could a college dare to make body mass index (BMI) a graduation requirement?

According to James DeBoy, the chair of Lincoln’s Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, the point of the new policy is to keep students healthy:

“There’s an obesity epidemic,” DeBoy says. “The data are clear that many young people are on this very, very dangerous collision course with heart disease, diabetes, and stroke—health problems that are particularly bothersome for the African-American community.”

The move by Lincoln University in Pennsylvania is ironic to say the least. Proudly billing itself as “The Nation’s First Black University,” Lincoln seems to have forgotten why it exists in the first place. For two hundred years, irrelevant criteria, like race, have been deemed important requirements for entrance to and graduation from college. Not only has Lincoln University introduced an irrelevant requirement for graduation, but the administration has managed to choose an irrelevant requirement that is more likely to affect black students than those of other races.

Henceforth, all students will be required to endure a physical examination to determine BMI. If the BMI exceeds the arbitrary limit of 30, the student must enroll in “gym” class to qualify for graduation. Lincoln University justifies it discrimination against the overweight by invoking the purest of motives; they’re moved by the humanitarian impulse to preserve health and prevent illness. Oh, really? So why is it bad to overeat but okay to sleep around?

Arguably, promiscuous sexual behavior is responsible for more illness, emergencies, and anguish during the college years than promiscuous consumption of food. Promiscuous sexual behavior is associated with dramatic increases in sexually transmitted diseases, leading to serious infections, hospitalizations, and long term health problems like infertility and potentially fatal diseases like AIDS. Unintended pregnancy causes health problems and psychological distress. If Lincoln University is really concerned about student health, wouldn’t it make more sense to include a pelvic or penile examination as a graduation requirement? Those with sexually transmitted diseases could be forced to attend “health” class to learn about responsible sexual behavior.

And as long as we are talking about regulating student behavior, why is it bad to overeat but okay to drink yourself to death? Alcohol abuse is arguably the most serious health problem at colleges. Perhaps Lincoln University should consider locating sobriety check points throughout the college campus. Random breathalyzer testing could identify students who drink to excess, and then they can be required to take a class on responsible drinking before qualifying for graduation.

Indeed, there are colleges that have instituted specific lifestyle guidelines on drinking and premarital sexual activity, but they do so for religious reasons. They explicitly favor certain lifestyle choices over others and are not afraid to say so. They do not camouflage their views with pious claims of preserving the health of their students.

Regardless of what the administration of Lincoln University tells the world, or even each other, about their motivations for instituting a BMI requirement, the de facto discrimination against overweight students has very little if anything to do with health. If the university were truly worried about student health, they would be addressing the most important threats to student health first, instead of ignoring those altogether. Lincoln University has decided to discriminate against the overweight for the oldest reason in the book: because they can.

Prejudice against the overweight is one of the last remaining social sanctioned prejudices. Never mind that Lincoln University is in the business of education and should be granting degrees based on educational criteria. The opportunity to single out, embarrass and penalize those who overeat was just too hard to resist. Perhaps the administration might consider taking an easier and less expensive route and simply force overweight students wear apparel emblazoned with a scarlet “O.”

When we are raised to believe that prejudice against those who look different is wrong, it is a relief to find a prejudice against those who look different that is right. Overt racism, sexism, ageism and even homophobia are out. Fortunately, discrimination against the overweight has never been more in.

Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at The Skeptical OB.

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