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"The Student Body" Filmmaker Bailey Webber is Exposing the Truth Behind the BMI

Bailey Webber is a student journalist who takes a stand against bullying and body shaming brought on by the government in her documentary, The Student Body. The film showcases real stories of children of all ages whose bodies fall out of the range of what’s deemed “acceptable” by the government, an issue that is occurring in several states across the nation. Webber takes a stand, showing lawmakers there is no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” body. NEDA was able to chat with Webber about the film and how the themes of The Student Body coincide with our mission.

National Eating Disorders Association: Please tell me a little bit about The Student Body and what inspired you to turn your activism into a full-length documentary.

Bailey Webber: The Student Body film is very dear to my heart. I have always loved filmmaking and especially documentary filmmaking because of the true stories that can bring powerful change to our culture. Growing up, I was inspired by my dad’s film, The Elephant in the Living Room, and was able to experience first-hand the true power of documentary storytelling. His film not only changed lives, it potentially saved them as well. Since then, I knew my calling. I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and I wanted to make a difference among my peers.

My dad offered to mentor me through the process, but first I needed to find a topic that I could be passionate about. After four months of searching, I met Maddie, a brave sixth-grader in my town who publicly criticized our school district for sending notification letters, or “Fat Letters,” to students whose BMI didn’t fall within a narrowly acceptable range. After meeting her, I knew I had my story.

But what started off as a small, local story exploded as my investigation grew. This wasn’t just our school doing this, it was the entire state! Then, I learned that a law had been passed that forced schools to do this, even if they disagreed. And this wasn’t just my state, this was happening all over the country, in spite of the fact that experts were saying this was a completely backward approach, even adding to a problem that they were trying to solve.  

So, what started off as a short summer project, turned into a full-length feature film that took me all over the county. It became my mission to be a voice for young people who had been humiliated, shamed, profiled and unfairly bullied by these laws.  

But what I didn’t expect is how making the film would affect me. It was like jumping into a roller coaster, buckling in and allowing the story to lead me wherever it went. And out of that journey, I became an activist!

NEDA: What is the most surprising thing you learned about “Fat Letters”? 

Bailey: I was really surprised to see the disconnect that exists between lawmakers and health experts. And I think that disconnect exists with the general public too, like myself, as I interviewed researchers and physicians who spoke so differently about the cause of and treatments for obesity than the rest of us do. It was an amazing learning experience and I’m so eager for people to be introduced to these concepts through the film.

I was also surprised to see the process that lawmakers went through when passing laws that would affect the physical and emotional health of kids. It was so absurd in some cases that it was comical! Aside from seeing the film, most people would never see what goes on in these hearings.

But mostly I was shocked to learn the CDC standard that everyone uses to identify kids as “overweight.” I had no idea that I would be telling the story of little grade school kids, active and healthy, who are also receiving these letters calling them overweight. It was totally unexpected, sad and frustrating.  

My hope is that seeing these things in the film, hearing the experts, watching the lawmakers and putting a face to these kids will cause a dramatic change in the way we understand obesity and see the people who are suffering from it.

NEDA: Did you ever expect to gain as much attention as you did for your work to expose the truth behind the “Fat Letters”? 

Bailey: In my wildest dreams, I would have never expected that this project would take me where it did! But I could have never gotten here on my own. I’m so grateful to the many, many people who encouraged me and helped me along the way. I can never thank them enough and only hope that the film will inspire change in others and keep this important conversation going.

NEDA: The Student Body is your directorial debut. Can you tell us what that experience was like? 

Bailey: Taking on something so challenging has been life-changing for me. I went from being a shy, terrified high school student to being an assertive, ambitious journalist. The experience of directing completely changed me, too. I learned to take on big challenges, to do things outside of my comfort zone, to push myself and not be so afraid. In doing this, I feel like I was able to become the person I wanted to be and grow beyond the person I was. 

It was so difficult to work on such a big project for over two years, while barely anyone knew what I was doing, and to wonder if my effort would ever matter to anyone. As we were finishing, Michael Moore invited us to premiere the movie at his film festival in Michigan. I was terrified! After the film played, it was so rewarding to see people have such a positive, emotional reaction to it. People shared their own stories with me, explained how the film changed their minds about obesity, and I could then see the positive change that the film could have. The experience has been overwhelming.  

NEDA: How do you think The Student Body can open conversations about body shaming and BMI?

Bailey: My hope is that The Student Body will finally personalize the issue. It’s one thing to cast a vote in a senate hearing room, to look at numbers on a BMI chart, to assume that kids are just lazy and eating junk food all day, and to imagine that people can be shamed into better health. But it’s another thing to actually see the face of the issue. And that’s what the film does. We see the kids who are affected, we hear their personal stories, we face the parents and we hear from researchers and experts who have spent their lives in this field. So, I challenge anyone to NOT have a conversation about body shaming and BMI after seeing the movie! That’s why I think documentary film is a powerful medium, like no other.

I also think that the film is a conversation starter. The film raises a lot of questions and introduces some concepts that people may have never thought about, but it can’t be the entire picture. That’s where organizations like the National Eating Disorders Association come in—to answer those questions and to be an ongoing resource of information and support for people. 

NEDA: What can young people do to protest unfair school policies, like body-shaming dress codes and BMI tests?

Bailey: A few things that I suggest to young people:  

  1. Always be respectful. Taking a stand, speaking your mind and challenging authority doesn’t mean you have the right to disrespect another person in the process. Otherwise, you’ve just done something wrong yourself!
  2. Find an adult to learn from and help support you. My friend, Maddie, had a strong, smart, loving mother who was willing to stand behind her when she protested. For me, my dad had my back all along the way as I challenged authority at every corner. This can help give you the courage you need when taking on big challenges and getting outside our comfort zone.
  3. Know your rights. My dad taught me that 90% of having rights is knowing your rights! Learn from an adult what is possible, what actions you can actually take, and what your rights are. Then bravely exercise those rights! Trust me, it feels great!
  4. Use your powerful voice! It’s surprising to learn that many people might feel the same way you do, but everyone is just waiting for someone else to speak up. Well, maybe you should be that “someone”! Start the conversation with your peers, your teachers, your parents and your school board. You’ll be amazed at the change that can happen when you finally choose to use our voice. I’ve experienced this twice in high school and you see it in the film. It’s amazing, it’s simple, and it can really change things for the better. You can do it, too!

The Student Body will premiere on October 5th at Regal E-Walk, 247 W 42nd Street (near Times Square). Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, will be available for audience engagements after the NYC screening