As higher rates of obesity have become a modern reality, understanding the pathways through which obesity is associated with lower socioeconomic outcomes such as educational performance remains an important task for social scientists. This study contributes to that work, hypothesizing a larger negative association between obesity and 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.
While obesity is often thought of as a health problem, this study suggests that discrimination by body weight may be an important pathway through which obesity affects students’ success in school. For a policy audience, this finding suggests that social interventions, such as obesity-related sensitivity training for teachers, may be the most effective pathway to reducing the penalty of obesity on academic outcomes.
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. In the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (age ~9) and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 (age ~18), I find obesity to be associated with a penalty on academic performance among white girls in English but not in math, while no association is found in either subject for white boys or for black students net of controls. Findings suggest that the relationship between obesity and academic performance may result largely from how educational institutions interact differently with bodies of different sizes rather than primarily via constraints on physical health.
(How) Does Obesity Harm Academic Performance? Stratification at the Intersection of Race, Sex, and Body Size in Elementary and High School
Amelia R. Branigan
First Published December 7, 2016
Amelia R. Branigan
Sociology of Education