As if high school isn’t stressful enough, imagine getting an official letter from your school saying you are overweight. It happened to Ohio high-schooler Maddy Karimi, who immediately visited her school board to let them know how it made her feel. The school board offered an apology, but that wasn’t enough for Maddy’s classmate, Bailey Webber, who felt compelled to find out why these letters were being sent in the first place.
Her incredibly tenacious investigation became The Student Body, a Netflix documentary released on March 25th.
The letters were the result of a law requiring schools to test students’ Body Mass Index (BMI), a controversial method for measuring body fat. At the time of Webber’s investigation, 21 states required schools to test students’ BMI, and eight states required them to send home letters — which students named “Fat Letters” — to parents of students whose BMI fell outside the “normal” range.
We’ve discussed the negative effects of body-shaming over and over, and Webber — along with many psychologists and some lawmakers — believed these letters were doing nothing to benefit student health. On the other hand, they felt the letters were doing everything to make students feel ashamed of themselves over a number whose importance even experts can’t determine.
As a person who literally breaks into a sweat every time I call my congressman (which I’ve been doing a lot more of lately), I spent a lot of this documentary alarming my dogs by cheering aloud as Webber used some serious Lois Lane skills to score an interview with her own congressman, Ohio Sen. Eric Kearney, who co-sponsored the bill that led to the “Fat Letters.” To give you an idea of how far she was willing to go to get an interview, here’s a quote from the part of the documentary when she’s trying to catch him at a rally with President Obama in Cincinnati:
Spoiler alert: She ended up with a White House press pass.
What started out as a high school video project about the letter policy at her own school ended up as a full-fledged documentary with the help of Webber’s father, filmmaker Michael Webber. Along the way, she interviewed some powerful women, including Meredith “MeMe” Roth, the infamous anti-obesity activist who The Guardian called “swashbucklingly offensive” in a 2010 feature story. Webber’s disarming assertiveness humanized the PR-savvy Roth in a surprisingly poignant moment. She also interviewed the inspiring writer and professor Dr. Sayatani DasGupta and the CEO of National Eating Disorders Association, Claire Mysko.
Webber is now a mass communications major at Wright State University in Dayton. She is currently making appearances at screenings of the film across the country. In a recent interview with the Wright State Newsroom, she said this about her experience:
According to the documentary, Ohio no longer requires BMI testing of its students, and several other states have also opted out.
As Webber and Karimi have shown us, speaking up may not be easy, but it can make a difference. Now, excuse me while I call my congressman…