Lifelong Cycle of Obesity, Poverty in Women

Teen girls from poor families are at greater risk than boys for becoming overweight or obese, and, in turn, adult obesity results in further socioeconomic difficulties, suggesting a lifelong cycle, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin.

The research, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, investigated the relationship between childhood poverty and obesity in adulthood.

The findings emphasize the need for programs and policies that target the negative health effects of socioeconomic disadvantage in childhood and adolescence, said lead author Dr. Tetyana Pudrovska, assistant professor of sociology.

For the study, researchers pulled data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study and tracked patterns of weight gain in more than 10,000 individuals from high school graduation in 1957 to later career stages in 1993.

They found that economic disadvantage in early life is strongly linked to higher body mass at age 18 and a greater risk of obesity at age 54. This link is the strongest among women and non-existent or inconsistent among men.

“Girls born into socioeconomically disadvantaged families are exposed from early life to an unfolding chain of lower socioeconomic status and higher body mass,” said Pudrovska, a faculty associate in the Population Research Center. “Women are more strongly impacted than men both by adverse effects of low socioeconomic status on obesity and by adverse effects of obesity on status attainment.”

Obese and overweight women must then face even further social and economic disadvantages, Pudrovska added. The findings show that obese women are less likely than thinner women to secure important social resources including education, occupational prestige and earnings.

This socioeconomic disadvantage in adulthood further increased the risk of obesity, suggesting a vicious circle of obesity and poverty. According to the study, this effect was not evident among men.

Why does being overweight exert such a strong and persistent negative result on women’s social achievement? The simple answer is that big is not considered beautiful, Pudrovska said.

“In our perpetual quest for female beauty, slenderness has become paramount,” Pudrovska said. “Physical attractiveness is more closely tied to thinness and more strictly enforced for girls and women than boys and men.”

To end this cycle of poverty and obesity, said Pudrovska, there is a need for more public awareness of weight-based discrimination in the labor market.

“Because obesity is not a protected status under federal law, promoting legal protection of overweight and obese persons from unfair treatment in the workplace is important, especially among women,” Pudrovska said.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

Overweight mother with her daughter photo by shutterstock.