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Do the Boy Scouts Hate the Overweight?

The chattering class is not happy with the Boy Scouts.

This Monday, thousands of Boy Scouts gathered in West Virginia for the National Jamboree, 10 days of camping and outdoor activities like rappelling, canoeing, and biking.

That’s about as good-ol-fashioned Scouting as it gets, in contrast with a year so far filled with public debate and strife. This June, the Scouts voted to allow openly gay Scouts youths while continuing to exclude openly gay leaders—thereby inviting scorn from all sides.

Yet even the Jamboree has become yet another occasion for Scout-shaming, as the word has gone out that the Scouts are persecuting their heftier members. In accordance with a policy announced two years ago, Scouts with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher have been excluded from the Jamboree, and Scouts with a BMI of 32 to 39 had to submit additional health information before being cleared to participate.

David Plotz, online editor of Slate, pegs the BSA as all-purpose discriminators (“Since they allow gay scouts, they had to find someone else to exclude”), while Lesley Kinzel, in the longest and most outraged critique of the policy, huffs:

It seems that the organization is trying to model itself on the boys’ most feared middle-school bullies, gamely prowling the halls between classes and ensuring that no boys exhibit the slightest inkling of weak, unathletic, or “girly” behavior.

Just like the Boy Scouts assume gay folks cannot possibly serve as good leaders and role models for kids, they also assume that all fat people—or rather, people with a BMI over a certain level—can’t walk a couple miles up a hill.

First, a quibble: anyone one who’s participated in Scouts knows that it consists largely of fat kids walking up hills.

Furthermore, a brief consideration of the policy shows that neither its effects nor its intent should be construed as fat-shaming. As J. Bryan Lowder, himself an Eagle Scout, points out, while BMI is a flawed measure of fitness, any teenager (as opposed to NFL lineman) with a BMI over 40 will almost certainly be unable to participate in or enjoy the Jamboree. And for the Scouts in the gray area,

I agree…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….

Nor is the emphasis on physical fitness in place to “shame” anyone:

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.

The BSA’s national commissioner, not exactly a willowy figure, even publicly challenged himself to get in shape for the jamboree! Even if clumsily framed and articulated, the policy clearly comes from a spirit of concern and motivation, and not out of meanness—no matter what people would like to believe about the Scouts.

Follow @rgblong

about the author

Robert Long is an editorial assistant at TAC. He is a graduate of Harvard and an Augusta, GA native. In addition to The American Conservative, his work has appeared at The New Republic and Harvard Political Review. He is an Eagle Scout. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find him on Twitter @rgblong.

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