Unchivalrously boiled down, this is the conclusion of a study by Christy N. Glass and Eric Reither. Women who are overweight early in life, they find, are less likely to complete college and for that reason, earn significantly less than better-proportioned. They found no such differences among men of varying sizes. As they summarize their findings in the New York Times:
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.
Christy M. Glass and Eric N. Reither are associate professors
I find this very easy to believe. I got my bachelor’s — and failed to get my master’s — from Arizona State University, home of the Fiesta Bowl. If you’ve never visited the campus, trust me — the girls look like strippers. (In fact, a few really are strippers, and given our year-round sunshine, many of the others could star in an amateur video after removing only one or two articles of clothing.)
Failing to meet cultural standards of beauty in a place like that can turn a confident woman insecure, and an insecure one into a neurotic mess. During my stay there, I got to know quite a fwe zaftig women. I don’t recall that any dropped out, but now that I think about it, neither did any made the place home the way the born pole-dancers did. They acted as if they thought of themselves as exchange students from some much mustier, less fun school.
Some got by playing the nanny role — listening to guys’ whine about their rotten love lives, helping them into the shower when they were blotto. Nanny is basically an analog to my vocation of walker, so I related easily.
It’s also true that overweight men don’t face anything like the same social disadvantages. If you’re what Texans like to call a full-grown boy (and what theologians probably call a Thomas Aquinas type), all you have to do is get a couple of tattoos, shave your head and grow a goatee. After tat, to get the women off you, you’ll have to use a putty knife. Why? I’m guessing, in female eyes, masculine bulk equals gravitas and stability. It offers protection, invokes teddy bers, daddy, the family Newfoundland.
Unlike gym-rat bulk it doesn’t hint at an off-putting vanity. I found this out the hard way. A little over two years ago, I decided to adopt the workout schedule of a convicted felon. Within a few months, I had a 28-inch waist and an 18-inch neck. And still I found myself outmaneuvered, more often than not, buy guys with big bellies filling out their bowling shirts. Once I started thinking like a woman, I came to appreciate the logic: if a guy spends all my time kissing his own guns, when would he find the time to kiss anyone else?
One final observation: those plus-sized women from whom life hasn’t shorn away all confidence can be wonderfully straightforward when they decide they like a man. They know better than to wait for him to make the first move, so they’ll make it for him. In fact, larger women are the second-boldest group of people I’ve ever met. If life were Sadie Hawkins Day, it’d be even money whether I’d end up with a queen-sized lady or a queen.