This week through July 24, about 40,000 Boy Scouts and their leaders are descending on a vast encampment in the hills of southern West Virginia to engage in traditional Boy Scout pastimes — hiking, shooting, repelling, orienteering, swimming, canoeing and fishing — and in a slate of more extreme physical activities such as mountain biking, skateboarding and rock climbing.
Fat Scouts, however, need not apply.
Citing the physical demands of the quadrennial Jamboree and the organization's ideals of physical fitness, the Boy Scouts this year announced that Scouts or Scout leaders with a body mass index, or BMI, above 40 — the point at which one is medically labeled “severely obese” — may not attend. Those with BMIs falling between 32 and 39.9 — labeled as obese — must have a physician’s clearance.
It’s a policy the Boy Scouts of America said it posted well in advance so that affected Scouts could get serious about improving their health. Boy Scouts of America spokesman Deron Smith called the policy part of an effort to teach Scouts “how to live a sustainable life.” But Smith added that the need to protect the health and safety of attendees also motivated the decision to bar those who may weigh close to 100 pounds more than is considered a “normal healthy” weight.
But whether exclusion is likely to improve the health of obese Scouts and their leaders is far from clear, several experts said Tuesday. Plus, they add, the Boy Scouts may be giving a pass to many Scouts who are sedentary but whose weight does not trip the exclusion criteria.
“So they’ve stopped discriminating against gay people and started discriminating against fat people. What a mess,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco and president of the nonprofit Institute for Responsible Nutrition. “If they’re all about improving Scouts’ health, that’s not going to help those who need it most."
Given the Supreme Court’s recognition of the Boys Scouts as a private organization, exclusion on the basis of excess weight alone is probably legally defensible, Lustig said. And coming on the heels of the American Medical Assn.'s decision to declare obesity a disease, the Boy Scouts’ exclusion of the very obese may seem wise.
But, Lustig added, “this is garbage.”
One in five obese people are completely metabolically normal, Lustig said. "They have no metabolic disease, will live a completely normal life, live to a completely normal age, and not cost the taxpayer anything. They’re just fat.”
Conversely, he said, up to 40% of the normal-weight population — including teens — have the same metabolic dysfunctions of obese people. They develop Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and depression just as many obese people do, he said.
“And they get to go to the Jamboree,” said Lustig, who called BMI a marker for disease, not a cause of it. “That’s just not fair.”
The Boy Scouts of America might elude charges of discrimination if they decided to require every Scout wishing to attend the Jamboree to undergo metabolic testing or a test of their physical fitness, Lustig said.
“But to exclude them on basis of BMI alone is not only medically nonsensical; it’s very bad PR,” he said.
Psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford said that in addition to stigmatizing Scouts who are very overweight, the policy of excluding them misses an opportunity to encourage those who are working their way toward fitness.
“It’s irresponsible to say that your weight is putting you at high risk, but not to offer some alternative activity that specifically addresses the physical limitations,” said Kingsford, who is clinical director of Wellspring, which runs camps, schools and programs aimed at promoting weight loss.
Despite controversy over the value of BMI as a predictor of disease, Kingsford said that those whose BMI falls within the range of severely obese are at “significantly greater risk of medical complications” in physically demanding surroundings, and present a “huge liability” to organizers.
The Boy Scouts “do need to protect themselves,” she said. “But banning them from that activity and not promoting an alternative, I have a problem with,” said Kingsford, who suggested that obese Scouts could be encouraged to wear pedometers and to engage in less demanding activities.
The National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance said the Boy Scouts' latest exclusion policy "promotes bias and negative attitudes and furthers the discrimination against boys of larger body size." The group called on the Boy Scouts to base their decisions about Scout participation on Scouts' levels of fitness, rather than on BMI.
The group noted, however, that the Scouts' weight-based discriminatory practices are not new.
NAAFA reported that it heard in 2009 from the mother of Boy Scout intent on attending the Philmont High Adventure Boy Scout Camp in Cimarron, N.M. The boy, despite hiking for two to three hours with a 50-pound pack on his back, and having participated in football, wrestling and track, would be sent home unless he showed up at camp weighing 246 pounds or less, down from 261 pounds, his mother said.
The Boy Scouts have a right to impose a fitness level required for participation in a particularly strenuous Jamboree, said Mariam Berg of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination. But, she added, the policy "does seem to go against the organization's stated aim of building confidence in Boy Scouts."
Noting that rejected Scouts are probably feeling discouraged, Berg said "the organization that promised them confidence-building programs has instead given them a complete rejection, and told them that just because of their size, they are not capable of physical activity. The Boy Scouts owes them an apology," she added.