Fat Teenagers "Burdened for Life?"
The New York Times has a new opinion piece online: Heavy in School, Burdened for Life. It's based on a study of 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. So, the people studied here are part of the pre-baby boomer generation.
The article was written by the same sociologists - Christy Glass, Steven Haas and Eric N. Reither - who published the paper, The Skinny on Success: Body Mass, Gender and Occupational Standing Across the Life Course.
The study starts out with the following assumptions-
At least three distinct mechanisms may influence career trajectories over the life course:
- employment-based discrimination,
- educational attainment, and
- marriage market processes.
In the United States, body mass is strongly and inversely associated with socioeconomic status, particularly among women. To explain how elevated body mass might result in lower SES, recent scholarship has sought to document the labor market and marriage market penalties faced by heavy individuals and how these penalties vary considerably by gender.
- and it comes to the following conclusions.
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.
In the study, they give this explanation for fat women's lower than expected educational attainment:
...overweight adolescents may face greater social stigma and isolation from peers and educators and, as a result, feel marginalized from educational institutions.
It's encouraging that the researchers are approaching this topic from a social justice perspective. Their findings are interesting and useful. However, I think they've missed a few important points in their analysis.
The first glaring omission is the failure to acknowledge the role of race (which is correlated with obesity) in economic and educational status, and the impact that dealing with multiple forms of discrimination has on many fat people.
The second omission has to do with cause and effect. The limiting effect that parental size discrimination can have on young people's education is well known. There were studies in the nineties that indicated parents are less likely to pay university tuition if their daughters are fat (for example, this one). At least one more recent study suggests that young fat men are subject to parental discrimination, too. When parents who can afford to help with college refuse to do so, it can prevent young people from receiving financial aid, in many cases making it impossible for them to attend university. So, while the stigma and social isolation that fat kids are often subject to can have a negative effect on their attitude toward school, parental discrimination is probably an even more important problem. And of course, if you think that you're worthless until you become thin (as we're told repeatedly), then you're probably concentrating on trying to become thin rather than on your success at school or in your career.
I'm really happy to see this kind of research being done and being discussed. However, in this case, I can't help but think it would have benefitted the researchers to talk to some actual fat people about why their educations may have been cut short. In addition, in highlighting the role of education, it de-emphasizes the role of bias. However, bias is also a major factor in fat people's (particularly women's) careers.
Studies that illustrate size discrimination often come out of institutions that are adding to the stigmatization of fat people, and the studies are often cited in support of dangerous and draconian weight loss methods. This study was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard Center for Society and Health, and both are notorious for their obesity is the devil / weight loss at any cost agenda. I'd like to see the discrimination against fat people presented not as a reason for weight loss, but as a call for social justice. How can we fight this?