Obesity in women negatively affects post-high school education, earning potential

A recent study by two Utah State University researches have found evidence to suggest that obese adolescent girls are less likely to succeed in their careers as adults but not because of employer discrimination. Demographer Eric Reither and Sociologist Christy Glass discovered that extra weight prevented heavier girls from achieving higher post-high-school education level – on average .3 years less – than their slimmer peers. “We didn’t find any evidence of discrimination,” Reither says. “What we found was that overweight women were less likely to go on to college and that’s what really negatively impacted their careers.” And curves their career trajectory, according to Glass. “When they enter the career they tend to enter at lower level of prestige and income then other women,” she says. “That disadvantage because of educational deficit accumulates over the course of their careers so progressively worsens work conditions over time.”The study garnered national attention when Reither, Glass, and another co-author of the study, researcher Steven Haas at Arizona State University, penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “Heavy in School, Burdened for Life.” These findings were not only a revelation to the public but to the academic world as well. Prior research has already established that overweight employees earn less and are less likely to be promoted than their slimmer peers. But the question if a person’s extra weight was a cause or an outcome of the lower workplace achievement had never been answered. “The real advantage of our study that set us apart was the body mass base line measure,” says Reither. “This determined whether the respondent was obese prior to entering the workforce. We didn’t have to disentangle first ‘was the person heavy and that led to poor work outcomes’ or ‘did the person have some poor work outcomes and that led to the weight issues.'”Using data from the 1957 Wisconsin Longitudinal study that tracked 10,300 respondents from high school graduation to retirement, Reither, Glass, and Haas had several decades worth of information to conduct their research. However, a critical piece of the ‘chicken or the egg’ like puzzle of obesity and career obtainment was missing. “There wasn’t a baseline measure in the original data set,” Glass admits. “They didn’t actually ask in 1957 any questions about body mass.”It was the innovative Reither that devised a way to accurately estimate a person’s body mass based on old yearbook photos. “I understand that sounds a bit odd,” Reither says, “but it’s very valuable.” For his dissertation Reither collected yearbook photos for every respondent in the 10,300 data set then created a coding system to code the individuals body mass in the image. Because the system was extremely reliable and valid the leading demography journal published it and is now used by scholars for a variety of questions. Armed with a base line measure, the researchers began to decipher the sociological riddle. “We have accumulative GPA, intelligence measures, college aspiration measures, have their parents socio-economic status and that enabled us to get a pretty good handle on what these students had achieved at that point and how motivated they were to go on and do some other things, go on to college specifically,” says Reither. “And even after taking those things into account we still find these overweight girls are less likely to go into college.”The study also finds that overweight boys do not suffer the same economic and career penalties that girls do. There is a significant amount of research to suggest overweight girls have weaker social bonds to peers and teachers as “woman are held to a standard of beauty where weight really matters.” “Being heavy can be an advantage for men if you are playing nose tackle on the football team,” Reither says. “There are many areas where being overweight is acceptable for boys. There are fewer avenues for girls.”Glass hopes that the study will lead to more education and prevention efforts that do not further stigmatize heavy girls. “When we talk about obesity we think about health, health care costs, health care impacts but the impacts go beyond health,” she says. “The impacts go into the potential of people to reach their full potential. We have a growing number of obese kids, a growing number of obese girls who aren’t going to reach their potential who aren’t going to become the Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner they could become. And to me that’s the real tragedy.”

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