Obesity,Diets#Eating Disorders#Bullying#Fat Acceptance#Please Share
MUCH of the debate about the nation’s obesity epidemic has focused, not surprisingly, on food: labeling requirements, taxes on sugary beverages and snacks, junk food advertisements aimed at children and the nutritional quality of school lunches.
But obesity affects not only health but also economic outcomes: overweight people have less success in the job market and make less money over the course of their careers than slimmer people. The problem is particularly acute for overweight women, because they are significantly less likely to complete college.
We arrived at this conclusion after examining data from a project that tracks more than 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. From career entry to retirement, overweight men experienced no barriers to getting hired and promoted. But heavier women worked in jobs that had lower earnings and social status and required less education than their thinner female peers.
At first glance this difference might appear to reflect bias on the part of employers, and male supervisors in particular. After all, studies find that employers tend to view overweight workers as less capable, less hard-working and lacking in self-control.
But the real reason was that overweight women were less likely to earn college degrees — regardless of their ability, professional goals or socioeconomic status. In other words, it didn’t matter how talented or ambitious they were, or how well they had done in high school. Nor did it matter whether their parents were rich or poor, well educated or high school dropouts.
Our study, published last year in the journal Social Forces, was the first to show that decreased education was the key mechanism that reduced the career achievement of overweight women — an impact that persisted even among those who lost weight later in life. We found no similar gap in educational attainment for overweight men.
Why doesn’t body size affect men’s attainment as much as women’s? One explanation is that overweight girls are more stigmatized and isolated in high school compared with overweight boys. Other studies have shown that body size is one of the primary ways Americans judge female — but not male — attractiveness. We also know that the social stigma associated with obesity is strongest during adolescence. So perhaps teachers and peers judge overweight girls more harshly. In addition, evidence suggests that, relative to overweight girls, overweight boys are more active in extracurricular activities, like sports, which may lead to stronger friendships and social ties. (Of course our study followed a particular group from career entry to retirement, and more study is needed to determine whether overweight girls finishing high school today face the same barriers, though these social factors suggest they do.)
That overweight women continue to trail men — including overweight men — in educational attainment in America is remarkable, given that women in general are outpacing men in college completion and in earning advanced degrees.
What does this mean for policy? Previous studies have shown that overweight adolescents feel stigmatized by their peers and their teachers, have fewer friends and often feel socially isolated. Teenagers who feel less connected to teachers, school and peers are less likely to graduate and go on to college. So policies to help overweight girls need to work on two levels: promoting healthful behaviors and shifting attitudes.
Obesity is occurring in children at younger and younger ages, so prevention needs to start as early as primary school. While early intervention has obvious potential health benefits, it is also critical from a career perspective. In addition, overweight girls should be encouraged to participate in college preparation courses and extracurricular activities. Health education that focuses on diet and exercise but does not stigmatize overweight teenagers is critical.
Teachers and principals need to be aggressive in limiting bullying and looking for signs of depression in overweight girls. Teenage girls, regardless of body size, struggle with self-esteem and are at higher risk of depression than boys, so expanding health education to include psychological as well as physical health could help all girls. Public health campaigns should reframe the problem of obesity from one of individual failure to one of public concern.
The economic harm to overweight women is more than a series of personal troubles; it may contribute to the rising disparities between rich and poor, and it is a drain on the human capital and economic productivity of our nation.