LOGAN -- A few generations back, it wasn't being overweight that hampered the careers of obese women. What hurt them was the fact that, perhaps because of their weight, they pursued less post-high school education.
That's the finding of a study by two Utah State University associate professors and a professor at Arizona State.
The trio wrote an opinion piece that ran June 2 in the New York Times, under the headline "Heavy in School, Burdened for Life."
Christy N. Glass and Eric N. Reither, both faculty members in the USU Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology Department, collaborated with Steven A. Haas, a social demographer at Arizona State University, for the 2010 study, which found that:
- Women with significantly higher body mass than average at high school graduation were less likely to pursue post-high school education, and went on to jobs that offered less money and prestige than those of their trimmer female classmates.
- But men with significantly higher-than-average body mass enjoyed the same level of career achievement as their average-sized male peers.
The researchers studied information from three decades of employment from a longitudinal project tracking more than 10,300 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957.
Glass, Reither and Haas studied respondents' body mass at high school graduation, and their career paths, from job-market entry to retirement.
"The take-home message was that weight discrimination did not account for the different career trajectories between the women," Reither said.
"Reduced educational attainment was the key."
The reason obese women pursued less higher education and had lower-paying, less-prestigious careers was not addressed in the study, Reither said.
But he speculates that society sets different beauty standards for its men and women, and women are held to a much stronger ideal and are punished for failing to meet a preset standard.
"It could relate to bullying of overweight girls at school, who may develop negative feelings about school and decide it's not an institution they want to spend additional time in by going to college," Reither said.
"For boys, we think there is potentially an advantage to being heavier and larger. It's associated with being masculine, and can be an advantage in athletic activities.
"Being large or heavy has fewer social advantages for girls, who may feel more narrowly defined by their physical appearance, and weight is part of that. Being heavier is often considered unattractive."
Reither believes the same social pressures keep heavy female high school graduates of today from pursuing further education and achieving more career success, although more research would be needed to confirm that theory, he said.
According to current statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese.
Glass said the loss of potential is unacceptable.
"Incredibly capable girls aren't realizing their potential, and that is a loss for us all," she said.
"It's a social tragedy as well as an individual tragedy."
The authors hope their study's findings will encourage school administrators and teachers to step in and stop bullying of overweight students, and encourage overweight teens, particularly girls, to participate in college preparatory classes and extracurricular activities.
"We're advocating obesity prevention at the same time we are trying to sensitize people to be decent human beings," Reither said.