Overweight people, especially women, are less successful than their slimmer peers, according to recent university research that blames a lack of education, rather than workplace discrimination, as the major reason.
"Bigger girls are less likely to go to college regardless of how well they did in school, their career aspirations or whether their parents went to college," said Christy Glass, one of two Utah State University associate professors of sociology involved in the study. "That education deficit accumulates over the course of their careers."
Weight was not nearly as big a factor in the career trajectories of men, the researchers found.
"We need some serious intervention there," Glass said.
The study was published last October in the journal Social Forces, but is getting national attention now because of an opinion piece by the scholars, titled "Heavy in School, Burdened for Life," that was published June 2 in The New York Times.
"There is so much insensitivity surrounding anybody afflicted with obesity. So much of the prevailing feeling is that we deserve everything bad that happens to us because it's all our fault," said Barbara Thompson, chairwoman of the Obesity Action Coalition, a 25,000-member group based in Tampa, Fla.
Prior research established that heavier women earn less than their peers, are excluded more often from managerial positions and get less education after high school. But Glass' team wanted to learn whether people are getting fat because they are not successful in their careers or if obesity is preventing them from advancing.
The researchers concluded that obesity, at least for young women, somehow derails aspirations. The finding is significant because obesity is a more prevalent problem among youth than it was in 1957, when the researchers' subjects graduated from high school.
To tease out causal relationships rather than simply document correlations, the Utah scholars, joined by Steven Haas, of Arizona State University, tapped the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a robust data set that has followed 10,300 men and women born around 1939 over the course of their working lives.
"The strength of the data was the key on how we could isolate this critical mechanism of education for overweight girls. It tracks from the time they enter their careers, their first jobs out of high school or college, until they retire. It allows us to pinpoint when in their careers body mass matters," Glass said.
The longitudinal study follows randomly selected people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools and are now in their early 70s. Over the years, Wisconsin researchers periodically checked in with the subjects, conducted interviews with siblings and spouses and recorded family and career status.
But the Wisconsin data had a big hole. No data was gathered on the subjects' body mass until 1993, depriving Glass' group of the baseline necessary to establish causal relationships between weight and socioeconomic status.
But they did have 50-year-old yearbook photos. With Hauser's guidance, Utah State University demographer Eric Reither, a study co-author, devised a way to accurately estimate a person's heft from these photos, which was the subject of his dissertation.
The USU team applied the technique to 3,027 randomly chosen participants in the Wisconsin study. On average, the overweight girls were less likely to complete college, achieving .3 years less post-secondary education than their thinner peers. That was enough, the researchers say, to explain their lowered career trajectories.
"We don't see any evidence of discrimination (as a cause for lower socioeconomic status among heavy women), but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen in other contexts," Reither said.
Obesity may be less of a factor in mens' economic prospects because it does not carry as much stigma and is not much of a barrier to playing sports or pursuing other extracurricular activities at school.
"Being heavy can be an advantage (for men), if you are playing nose tackle on the football team," Reither said.