Study shows obese girls face tough career climb compared to thin peers

Published: Wednesday, June 29 2011 4:30 p.m. MDT

LOGAN — Teenage girls who are obese face a lifetime of lower earnings, lower social status and a significant unlikelihood of completing college, according to researchers at Utah State University.

The two social science researchers, and a colleague at Arizona State University, are gaining national attention for their work after they published an op-ed piece this month in the New York Times, advocating both social change in how obese young women are treated and early obesity prevention for girls starting as early as preschool.

The study looked at the lives of more than 10,000 young women who graduated from high schools in Wisconsin in 1957. Decades of data were collected on the lives and careers of the women, who are now in their 70s. Using an innovative demographic analysis system, yearbook photos were used to determine the Body Mass Index of each teen. What researchers found was young women who were obese earned less over the course of their lives than their thinner peers and was less likely to earn college degrees.

Researchers claim the study is the first of its kind to reveal education as a key factor in reducing career achievement for obese women.

"Obesity is increasing nationwide, especially among children. I think this study is important because I think this is a major social problem with an enormous economic cost," said study co-author Christy Glass, a sociologist at USU. "Incredibly capable girls aren't realizing their potential and that is a loss for us all."

Glass said the fact that the girls came from wealthy or poor families did not seem to make a difference, adding that data showed many of the obese girls had high grade-point averages and had expressed a desire to go to college but didn't.

USU demographer Eric Reither and social demographer Steven Haas of Arizona State also worked on the study. Reither's innovated method for identifying a subject's BMI using yearbook photos resulted in his own journal article being published, and his method being used by other researchers across the country.

One finding that surprised Glass was that workplace discrimination played no role. By the time an obese woman began searching for a job, their education level was already negatively impacted. However, the same trend did not seem to apply to obese boys. Glass theorizes that obese boys have social venues, such as football, where they can build relationships, whereas obese girls have no such venue.

Wayne Askew, a professor of nutrition at the University of Utah, said he has seen studies that show obesity has a negative impact on a girl's self-esteem, but he was surprised to see a study that showed girls dropped out of higher education because of their weight. "I had no reason to expect that," Askew said. However, Askew said he was concerned that the data began in 1957, and said attitudes may have changed.

"We know that attitudes toward females in the workplace have changed. So does the obesity destroy that gain that the trend has made? That deserves to be explored," Askew said. He himself has studied the connection between body image satisfaction, and obesity and anorexia. People who have poor self-esteem have difficulty controlling their eating habits, he said.

The USU study "The Skinny on Success: Body Mass, Gender and Occupational Standing Across the Life Course" was published last year in the journal Social Forces. But this month Glass, Reither and Haas wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, pushing their research into the national spotlight. They suggest that body weight appears to be tied more to attractiveness in females than it does males. Also, perhaps teachers judge overweight girls more harshly. What is needed, they said, is work in shifting social attitudes and promoting healthy behaviors in girls, starting as young at preschool.

Askew said while it may seem contradictory to suggest that society must learn to accept obese women while at the same time encouraging better health habits from them, he sees both goals working toward producing more well-adjusted young women.

Glass said reaction to the op-ed piece has largely been positive. "We've gotten pretty overwhelming positive responses from obesity advocates," she said. The trio has also been contacted by researchers in public health and economics from universities across the country. There have been a few angry emails from those who believe parents of obese girls have failed morally, but Glass said she disagrees and finds no evidence that parents had failed these girls morally.

Bottom line, Glass said, for women in careers is "women's attractiveness is tied to career success."

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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