Medical Examiner

The Boy Scouts’ Ban on Fat Kids

Is it as awful as it sounds?

A Boy Scout makes his way down a rappelling wall on July 29, 2010 during the National Scout Jamboree in Virginia
A Boy Scout makes his way down a rappelling wall on July 29, 2010 during the National Jamboree in Virginia

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Every four years, thousands of Boy Scouts from around the country converge on a single site to celebrate the National Jamboree, 10 days of camping, camaraderie, and outdoor activities. This year’s gathering convened on Monday, and though the weather at the Bechtel Family National Scout Summit Reserve in West Virginia is currently sunny, a shadow has been cast over the event due to a controversial new policy issued by the Boy Scouts of America. (And no, it’s not the BSA’s decision to allow openly gay scouts but not the adult leaders they might grow into.) As of this year, scouts and adult leaders with body mass indexes of 32 or higher could attend the Jamboree only after consultation with camp medical staff, and those with BMIs over 40 were banned from coming altogether.

Some critics have jumped to decry the BMI rule as fat-shaming bullying, and I can understand why it looks that way. We’ve had quite a debate about it here at Slate. L. V. Anderson suspects the BSA was “body snarking on fat kids to the media” and David Plotz proposed a kind of conservation of prejudice: “Since they allow gay scouts, they had to find someone else to exclude.” As an Eagle Scout myself, I like to believe that scouting has something useful to offer every boy, regardless of weight, and imposing limits on who is eligible to attend one of the biggest events in scouting doesn’t jibe with that ideal. However, after looking into the reasoning behind the policy, these accusations seem a bit overblown and ill-informed.

To start, we should be clear on the stakes here: The BSA is not banning over-40 BMI boys or leaders from scouting in general, but rather from this specific event. That’s because—before you even get to the physically demanding and potentially dangerous “high-adventure” activities like white-water rafting, high-ropes, and rock climbing—navigating the Summit Reserve itself is a formidable physical challenge. The new Jamboree site is a mountainous 10,000 acres and, because there will be no buses or other motor vehicles to move people around, participants will have to hike miles, often uphill, each day from activity to activity. Event organizers announced the change in the 2013 location and health requirements two years ago with the hope that scouts and leaders who were not physically prepared for the challenge would use the time to get in shape. (Incidentally, the BSA’s national commissioner also posed the challenge to himself in a video announcing the policy.)

Many will rightly point out that BMI is a notoriously bad measure of fitness, especially when applied to teenagers, whose body compositions can fluctuate relatively rapidly as a natural part of growing up. Though the BSA has not released the number of those barred from attending, should we assume that perfectly capable scouts are being excluded because of an imprecise number? Many super fit athletes, after all, are considered “obese” on the BMI scale because of their enhanced muscle mass. But let’s be real—we are not talking about NFL linemen here; vanishingly few teenage boys and adult leaders are going to fall into this category. While there is a fair possibility that someone with a BMI a bit higher than  30 (a 5-foot-6 male who weighs 200 pounds) could be capable of mastering the Summit, someone scoring 40 (a 5-foot-6 male who weighs 250 pounds) or more almost certainly could not.

So having a cutoff at a BMI of 40 might be physically reasonable—but is it necessary? After all, this is not the first time that scouts have had to satisfy fitness or other health requirements before participating in an activity. Fitness tests are built into the program (there’s a required merit badge for it), and health checks are routine before most big events. A person with such a high BMI would likely be unable to participate in most of the physical aspects of scouting on a weekly basis, not to mention the special case of the Jamboree, so the higher-than–40 furor may well be a case of being offended for a group that doesn’t actually exist.

What about the grayer area, the scouts and leaders who fall in the range between 32 and 39.9? Is the use of BMI as a screening device warranted in those cases?

Probably not. According to my colleague Daniel Engber (who has reported extensively on BMI and obesity issues), a better fitness measure would be to simply measure, well, fitness, via the kinds of pre-event tests that scouts already use. He also points out that scouts and leaders who have had a previous heart attack or stroke—clear risk factors for health problems at the Jamboree—may be admitted to the Jamboree with a doctor’s permission. In contrast, the much more ambiguous BMI metric may not be excused as easily. The event site states that “a recommendation … by the applicant’s personal health care provider does not necessarily guarantee full jamboree participation,” a decision that is left to the discretion of the “jamboree medical staff.”

I agree with Engber that the higher scrutiny on BMI is out of whack, but having been to scout camp many times, I also doubt that the screening will be as harsh in practice as it sounds on paper. Scout leaders and site staff want, above all, for as many scouts as possible to have fun and be active, and so if there is a way for an obese scout to participate in a given activity, they are going to try to find it.

But that desire for open participation does have to be balanced with safety. Scout camps are usually remote and difficult to access, meaning that if a health crisis or injury does occur, it can be exceedingly difficult to get the victim to a hospital. Having seen a fellow scout airlifted by helicopter out of a gorge after falling during a climb, I can attest that this is a real concern that has nothing to do with shaming anyone.

Though it may not be the most accurate fitness filter, the BMI policy undoubtedly comes from a place of concern—about safety at the Jamboree, to be sure, and also about the increase in obesity among American youth. Indeed, BSA leaders have been explicit that one of the goals of the policy is to encourage overweight scouts to improve their fitness; a scout is, after all, called in his oath to be “physically strong.” But with research increasingly suggesting that it is possible to be both at the same time, the BSA should make its policy more fitness-focused in future years. It may not be as easy as setting a numerical cutoff, but it will help them include as many boys as possible, as safely as possible.