While obesity is generally believed to be a health problem, new research shows that body weight and the discrimination associated with it may also be responsible for the lower rate of academic success among white female students who are obese. The research was conducted at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
The study, published in the journal Sociology of Education, suggests that the correlation between academic performance and obesity in white female students could be the result of educators' attitudes when it comes to girls of various sizes. The study documents the effects of obesity on the girls' psychological, rather than physical, health.
Obesity Could Impact Girls' Academic Performance
Even when the white obese girls scored the same in ability tests as their non-obese peers, they still had lower grades. According to the paper, the girls were rated as less academically capable compared with their normal-weight peers as early as in elementary school.
The researchers investigated students from elementary school, aged nine, and high school students, aged approximately 18. The students' performance was evaluated by teacher-assessed academic performance in the case of elementary school kids, and by grade point average in the case of high school students.
"Even in the absence of a direct link between obesity and academic performance, a relationship could also appear as the result of unobserved variables that produce both poor educational outcomes and increased body mass," noted the research.
As part of the research, obesity was associated with a penalty on the academic performance as evaluated by teachers among the study group in English, but not in math. Additionally, no penalty was identified in overweight girls who were not obese.
"In this study I hypothesize a larger penalty of obesity on teacher-assessed academic performance for white girls in English, where femininity is privileged, than in math, where stereotypical femininity is perceived to be a detriment. This pattern of associations would be expected if obesity largely influences academic performance through social pathways, such as discrimination and stigma," also noted the research.
At the same time, the paper did not find a correlation between obesity and the grades of white boys, or black students of either gender. According to the lead author of the research, these findings seem to suggest that obesity is more stigmatized when it comes to white women, compared with white men or people of other races, regardless of their gender.
"Obese white girls are only penalized in 'female' course subjects like English. This suggests that obesity may be most harshly judged in settings where girls are expected to be more stereotypically feminine," noted Amelia R. Branigan, lead author of the paper.
Childhood Obesity, A National Issue
Obesity rates among children and adolescents have been relatively stable throughout the past years, according to CDC data, and the most recent statistics available describe the 2014 trends. Obesity currently affects 17 percent of the children in the United States, which accounts for roughly 12.7 million cases.
Among all races, Hispanics are the most prone to having obese children, as 21.9 percent of the Hispanic children are currently obese. At the same time, 19.5 percent of non-Hispanic black children are obese, compared to 14.7 percent of the non-Hispanic white population.