E-mail stirs 'fat shaming' controversy at Bryn Mawr College

Rudrani Sarma, a junior at Bryn Mawr.

Sometimes you just can't win for losing.

Bryn Mawr College students are planning a demonstration next week to protest what some described as an insensitive e-mail sent to women with "elevated BMIs" - that is, a little overweight.

The e-mail was an invitation to participate in a free, individualized fitness program.

The list of 100 recipients was generated from records compiled by the college's health care center.

"There were truly good intentions behind this," said Bryn Mawr spokesman Matt Gray. "It's a program that includes individual counseling, nutritional advice, and group support."

The program, launched in October, has had 12 students go through it. Outside of one critical blog post in October, no one complained, Gray said.

This time, the invitations hit a nerve.

Rudrani Sarma, a pre-law junior from Colorado who is not obese, received one of those invitations and said she was mortified.

"It felt awful to be targeted like that," she said.

In a post on her Facebook page, she called the invitation "problematic," "hurtful," and "just plain stupid."

"You're telling students that it's more important to lose weight than to be healthy. You're telling students that you discriminate based on weight by compiling a list of 'fat' students," she wrote.

Sarma ended it with "How dare you, Bryn Mawr?"

Sarma's post went viral. It collected dozens of comments. She filed a complaint with the dean's office. On Monday, she received an apology from the health center, which told Sarma her name had been included on the list because a nurse entered her height incorrectly.

The apology came too late to quell interest in Sarma's story.

The Phoenix, the student newspaper at nearby Swarthmore College, noticed Sarma's Facebook post and published a 1,200-word story Thursday about the perceived affront. Buzzfeed, the website specializing in viral news, picked up the story Thursday.

Reached by phone, Sarma said she was surprised by the controversy she had stirred up.

"A lot of people were angry, and when that happens, it's kind of like wildfire," she said. "Body policing and fat shaming are both involved here, and it's important to have a discussion about how we want to talk about our bodies."

George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied behavioral economics and obesity, said the targeted e-mail was "probably a mistake."

"It's selecting one arbitrary group," he said, "and saying, 'We've identified you as being in need of change.' "

On the other hand, he said, the program itself appeared to be well-designed, given that it includes dietary and exercise components.

"It could be that some people will take it up, and it could benefit them," Loewenstein said.

There is scant research showing that schools, companies, and other institutions are able to change behavior with weight-loss programs and incentives, as such a finding would require a randomized study that no employer or school is likely to conduct, he said. Still, such programs could be helpful for some people, he said.

Gray said the health center is rethinking how it will invite students to participate in the future.

"One of the things we'll look at is wording," he said. "We'll figure out something so this doesn't happen again."

 


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Inquirer staff writer Tom Avril contributed to this article.