Sociologists at Utah State University and Arizona State University write an opt-ed in The New York Times highlighting the findings of their study published in the journal Social Forces. The authors suggest that educators need to be aggressive in limiting bullying and looking for signs of depression in overweight girls and that expanding health education to include psychological as well as physical health could help.
From the article:
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.