University apologizes for using medical records to target ‘fat’ students with weight loss program

Bryn Mawr emailed invitations to join a university-sponsored weight loss program to students with "elevated" BMIs.

Some students who had previously been treated at the school for eating disorders reportedly received the email.

Bryn Mawr College has issued an apology to students after sending an email many perceived as “fat-shaming.”

The all-women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania found itself surrounded by controversy after the school’s Health Center emailed invitations for a university-sponsored weight loss program to students with “elevated” Body Mass Indexes.

According to the The Swarthmore Phoenix, the college’s Health Center combed through students’ medical records to determine who should be notified about the program. Students with above average BMIs were then sent a personally addressed email encouraging them to sign up for the fitness and weight loss class.

“My first reaction to this was obviously horror,” Bryn Mawr junior Rudrani Sarma told the Phoenix. “I felt like it was an incredibly impersonal email and just incredibly unethical to receive something like this.”

Bryn Mawr senior Heidi Gay also received the email and was disturbed by the Health Center’s response to her expressed discomfort.

“Because we have limited resources, we are currently limiting enrollment to students who are most likely to get the most health benefit from the program, but it would be appropriate for anyone,” the Health Center wrote in an email response to Gay.

According to a school spokesperson, the program—hosted by the Health Center and Bryn Mawr’s athletic facilities and dining staff—has been offered twice before without objection and combines dietary guidance with personalized fitness plans. Students enrolled in the program can earn credit toward their physical education requirements.

On Friday, health center director Dr. Kay Kerr responded to a student on social media who deemed the program “unethical” and said its use of medical records invaded their privacy.

“On behalf of everyone involved with this program, I sincerely apologize to anyone who has been upset or offended by our communications,” Kay wrote to students in a campus-wide email, adding that the college “will rethink our approaches and our assumptions moving forward.”

Some students who had previously been treated at Bryn Mawr’s health center for weight-related issues, including eating disorders, received the email as well, according to feminist website Jezebel.

Jezebel obtained an email from one student who claimed the weight loss program coincides with a larger push by the school’s administrators to get students to lose weight.

“The dishes and cups in the dining hall have become smaller every year,” wrote the student. “The encouragement by the administration to lose weight has increased. And hall leaders are being told to lessen the number of food-related get-togethers.”

Bryn Mawr did not respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment regarding the use of students’ medical records in adherence to the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act—a federal privacy law intended to protect the confidentiality of individuals’ health information.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @gabriellahope_