A Healthy 9-Year-Old Girl is Labeled Overweight By School Officials

Gwendolyn Williams is 9 years old and finishing up third grade at PS 29 in Staten Island, New York. She enjoys playing softball and riding her scooter.  She is a ball of energy and, according the New York Department of Education, overweight.

In November, as part of the city’s fitness and health assessment program, Gwendolyn was one of the more than 870,000 New York City K-12 students who received an annual health assessment.  The Fitnessgram looks at the students’ aerobic capacity, muscle strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. As part of the body composition, they look at the height and weight of the student, as well as measure their body mass index (BMI) on a scale that is based on their age and gender.

As originally reported by the New York Post, Gwendolyn’s BMI percentage was 19, which put her squarely into the overweight category for nine year old girls. At 4 feet, 1 inch tall she is one pound over the “healthy” weight. She tips the scales at a whopping 66 pounds.

As anyone can see, Gwendolyn is not overweight.

The assessment was sent home with the kids shortly before the Memorial Day weekend. While her mother was tucking her in, Gwendolyn said, “Hey, Mom. The school told me I’m overweight. Is this what they mean?” she asked as she jiggled her thighs.

Her mother, Lisa Bruiji Williams, was heartbroken.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s BMI percentile calculator, Gwendolyn is clearly within the healthy weight. While it is unknown what calculator the school used (there are many), there is one thing many health officials agree on: BMI is not an accurate assessment of an individual’s health. So why do we use it?

The body mass index is a simple equation of dividing weight by the height. It was created in 1832 by Adolphe Quetelet in his quest to find the average, normal man. It had nothing to do with weight or obesity, but was more an attempt to understand the standard human build.  While doctors had suspicions that obesity had ill effects on the human body, it would be nearly a century later that large scale studies would be conducted. These studies showed a correlation between being overweight and certain diseases. Many were conducted by insurance companies which looked at data showing overweight policyholders died earlier than those of a “normal” weight.  They used this information to create actuarial tables.

It wouldn’t be until 1972, however, that physiology and obesity research Ancel Keys published “Indices of Relative Weight and Obesity,” which reported the results of his study of 7,400 men in five countries that showed a mathematical formula to determine body-fat percentage. It was the same formula created more than a century earlier by Quetelet, except now there was more data. Keys renamed the formula the body mass index.

Over the next decade, researchers and medical professionals would use the formula to determine the body fat of individuals because it was simple and inexpensive. In 1985, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) started defining obesity using the BMI and created the percentage table, with obesity being defined in the 85th percentile for each gender. In 1998, the threshold was adjusted down. What was the 85th percentile in 1986 is the 50th percentile today.

Meaning, it’s much easier to be considered overweight today than it was in 1986.

The irony of all of this is that neither Quetelet or Keys meant the formula to be used in such a manner. Keys stated in his landmark 1972 paper that the BMI should not be used for individual diagnosis as, at the time, the formula ignored age and gender, as well has an individual’s overall health. It also ignored body type and muscle mass. The BMI was meant as a way to estimate the body fat of a large group with diverse body types – not label an individual.

It should definitely not be used to label a 9-year-old girl.

The NY Department of Education says that the Fitnessgram is just one indicator in the health assessment. Gwendolyn’s mother, however, believes that sending these kinds or reports home with the kids can affect their self-esteem. When Lisa Bruiji Williams spoke with the principal, she was sympathetic. The principal pointed out that the kids were not supposed to look at the easy-to-open assessment (because telling a nine year old to not do something always works).  In the end, the school agreed to look into the matter – by sending home the assessments in sealed envelopes with report cards next year.

Fortunately, Gwendolyn is a very self confident girl who already sees the flaws in the assessment. As she points out, “I just don’t think that it’s fair to be called overweight when you’re not really overweight! I know that I’m not overweight, so why should I believe the New York Department of Education?”


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

Gwendolyn seems pretty smart to me!

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

The program needs a up grade to real life.
That young lady is not fat.

Susan T.
Susan T3 years ago

is this part of the first lady's program?

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

Unless a kid is visibly obese the school should have no comments about anyone's BMI. All this is doing to kids (girls especially) is promoting the "you have to be rail-thin look" to be accepted.

The principal's excuse for sending the paperwork home with kids "they aren't supposed to look". For gosh sakes, everyone knows you tell a kid not to do something and they are going to do it...so OBVIOUSLY that woman is in the wrong career if she doesn't have that figured out. Then the fix it is to send it home in a sealed envelope with report cards. Like that is going to change anything. This is a flawed test and flawed system.

Sharon Suppree
Sharon S3 years ago

Does the school even realise the sort of psychological damage that this can do to young girls?!

Kamia T.
Kamia T3 years ago

This shouldn't be the school's business, nor should information be sent home with kids. There is already enough documentation of females, especially, having skewed body images at a ridiculously young age. This does nothing to help, and is clearly an outmoded method. Some cultures are naturally heavier both in bone and mass, some aren't. Some females are rounder, some are more flat. Each person should be as healthy as they can for THEIR body type. Not someone else's.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago


Mary Beth M.
MaryBeth M3 years ago

And Berny p: Just what was that comment about, a brain bubble, or what?

Mary Beth M.
MaryBeth M3 years ago

The national epidemic of obesity among children cannot be solved by using ridiculous and arbitrary measurements and thus, labeling. The school's responsibility is to provide education on healthy eating & exercise. Often truly obese children have obese parents due to learned eating habits at home & lack of exercise. Once, at my daughter's softball game, another mom asked me if I thought her overweight daughter was "fat"? Not wanting to jump into that frying pan, I told her if she was really concerned, then eliminate the junk foods & encourage healthy alternatives. (I've seen what this girl eats-lots of junk food.) On the other hand, at my own daughter's sports physical, my healthy, very active daughter came out at the upper end of the BMI. Our wise doc said, not to worry, she's all muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat. It's not just the measurement, it actually requires looking at the kid! Sometimes we do more harm than good on these overzealous campaigns for wellness!