Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College is apologizing after sending e-mails to students identified as overweight.
The messages that invited them to join a program to shed pounds were sent with the intention of raising awareness about health risks associated with being overweight, but the idea backfired and the liberal arts college is now being accused of "fat-shaming," reports CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips.
Located 11 miles west of Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr is known for its liberal traditions and female student body.
So when English major Rudrani Sarma received a message saying she was invited to a "weight loss success" program for students with "elevated BMI's," she demanded to know why.
"Initially, I was pretty horrified. I've dealt with an eating disorder for many years and I didn't know how I could receive something like this from the same health center that treated me," Sarma said.
Sarma, a junior at the college, soon discovered that her BMI had been miscalculated and was issued an apology.
Even if her BMI had been in the category, however, Sarma said she definitely would not have welcomed the invitation.
"I would have felt just as horrified and just as uncomfortable," Sarma said. "I would have felt as if my school was discriminating against me."
To vent her frustration, Sarma turned to Facebook, posting an open letter to her school, saying in-part: "You're telling students that it's more important to lose weight than to be healthy" and "you discriminate based on weight by compiling a list of quote on quote (sic) fat students ... How dare you Bryn Mawr?"
Judy Balthazar, the undergraduate interim dean, regrets the impact the messages have had. She said they were sent out of concern about student health.
"The email was all about health and well-being," Balthazar said. "And so the part that I really want to come away with this emphasizing is that ... our culture has made it impossible for us to talk about weight without implying that we're talking about somebody's worth or somebody's beauty."
But that's exactly what sophomore Natalie DiFrank felt when she received the message.
"Being a fat woman is -- the idea that a constant thought and reminder I had in my head that I do not fit in on campus," DiFrank said. "And I think it did trigger a lot of feelings for me personally. I'm feeling, 'Oh my god, my body is being eradicated. They want my body out of here.' The health center is looking at me as a problem that needs to be changed."
Because of Sarma's letter, "body policing" and "fat-shaming" soon became the school's hottest topics of conversation.
"Sending out a message like this isn't necessarily about health; it's about weight, and health and weight are not the same thing," Sarma said.
It's a conversation Sarma plans to continue, while administrators take a closer look in addressing matters of student health.
"If we really need to be having that conversation with the student, we need to figure out how we can do it face to face, and how we can wait until the student initiates the conversation rather than us go proactively," Balthazar said.
The director of the school's health center has issued an apology to those who received the original message, but Sarma and her supporters said the impact has had far more reach and are asking the administration to apologize to the entire student body.