Bryn Mawr College is under fire for an email intended to promote personal health that ended up offending dozens of students who felt wrongfully targeted for their body type.
The email — titled “Give a HOOT!' — promoted one of the school's newer programs, Fitness Onward to Weight Loss Success, or Fitness O.W.L.S.
The controversial email was sent to an undisclosed number of students who had an “eligible” body mass index (BMI). The fitness program is a collaboration effort between the Athletic Department, Dining Services and Health Department at the prestigious Main Line all-girls college, according to an email sent to students in mid-January.
The story of one Bryn Mawr junior, Rundrani Sarma, was shared widely on social media after she told the popular site, Buzzfeed that she was "horrified."
The English literature major said she had used resources at the student health department to overcome an eating disorder and the email was “triggering.” When she followed up to the email, she said she was informed it was a clerical mistake.
“In a way of explanation (but not excuse) at one time a nurse entered your height incorrectly and you appeared on the list of students who would qualify for the program,” an email published on Buzzfeed said. “This error pointed out to me that our screening processes are inadequate. They will be improved.”
The school calculated students’ BMIs based on information provided to the Health Center, according to a Bryn Mawr College official.
“[Fitness O.W.L.S] is to sort of get a cohort of people who have similar fitness levels,” said Matt Gray, a college spokesman.
The two-credit Fitness O.W.L.S program listed on the college’s site is the only physical education course listed with eligibility requirements for entry.
“The fitness O.W.L program is really for people that are overweight,” said Monika Hawkins, who works in the Health Center at Bryn Mawr College. “We also tell people they can go to a nutritionist.”
Gray added the requirements are meant to address students with injuries who cannot participate in certain activities. But the site does not list the same health assessment standards for sports like advanced rowing, volleyball, kickboxing or other more rigorous courses.
In an apology email to the student body, officials with the school claim to have designed the program to assist students with indicators of “potential health risks.”
“I sincerely apologize to anyone who has been upset or offended by our communications, and I want to reassure the community that we will rethink our approaches and our assumptions moving forward,” read the apology email sent to students who were “eligible” for the Fitness O.W.L.S
The program has been offered three times in the past, but this is the first time school officials received complaints, Gray said.
The students impacted by the email plan to protest the school for invading their privacy.
The adequacy of body mass index as an indicator of health has long been criticized; NPR.org compiled a list several years ago pointing out potential problems with using BMI to indicate body fat percentage.
The CDC cites BMI as an accurate way to screen weight categories, but the measurement developed by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet never had interest in measuring obesity. Instead, he attempted to define characteristics of “normal man,” and developed an index that measures the relationship to describe that weight increases as height increases.