Research has shown that obese students tend to do worse in school — but why is this? Some have suggested that this may be due to bullying or the effects of poor health on brain development.
Now a new study finds that teacher discrimination against obesity may play a significant role in the lower academic success of obese white female students, particularly in traditionally “female” classes, such as English.
The study was conducted by Dr. Amelia Branigan, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She found that the association between obesity and academic performance may result largely from educators interacting differently with girls of various sizes.
For instance, even when they scored the same on ability tests, obese white girls received worse high school grades than their normal-weight peers. Teachers also rated them as less academically able as early as elementary school, according to the findings.
For the study, Branigan evaluated elementary school students around age nine in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and high school students approximately 18 years old in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 cohort. The elementary school students were evaluated by teacher-assessed academic performance, while grade point average was the measured outcome used to assess the high school students.
The results show obesity to be associated with a penalty on teacher evaluations of academic performance among white girls in the subject of English, but not in math. There was no penalty observed for white girls who were overweight but not obese.
“Obese white girls are only penalized in ‘female’ course subjects like English,” Branigan said. “This suggests that obesity may be most harshly judged in settings where girls are expected to be more stereotypically feminine.”
Consistent with prior work on obesity and wages and other academic outcomes, no similar association was found in either math or English for white boys, or for black students of either sex. This may reflect findings that obesity is more stigmatized among white women than among white men or individuals of other races, according to Brannigan, who says social interventions for teachers may lessen the performance gap.
“As we continue to combat childhood obesity, efforts to also counter negative social perceptions of obese individuals would have advantages in terms of both educational outcomes and social equity more generally,” she said.
The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Sociology of Education.