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Obesity is in the Eye of the Beholder

Obesity is in the Eye of the Beholder

While the medical community has a specific definition of what it means to be overweight or obese, in the real world, gender, race, and generation are key factors in whether people are judged as too fat, according to a new study.

“It looks like obesity is in the eye of the beholder,” said co-author Vida Maralani, an associate professor of sociology at Cornell University. “People are judged differently depending on who they are. ‘Too fat’ in the medical world is objective. You can measure it. But in the social world, it’s not. It’s subjective.”

Many studies have found an association between obesity and poor socio-economic outcomes, such as lower wages, family income, marriage rates, and spousal earnings. This study is different, according to the Cornell scientists, because it looks at similar measures both over time and across gender and race.

“We find quite consistent patterns for white Americans across outcomes and over time. For white men, there was a penalty both for being too thin and for being too fat. For white women, thinner was nearly always better,” Maralani said. “For African-Americans, the link between body mass and these outcomes dissipates. People seem to have become more accepting of larger bodies. But that’s not true for whites.”

One of the more notable findings of the study was just how much society expects white women to be thin, the researchers noted. The higher a white woman’s BMI, the lower her wages. Conversely, white women with the lowest body mass had the highest wages, the study discovered.

The patterns for white men are consistent with a body norm too — one that’s not too thin and not too fat.

“I think our focus on the medical definition of obesity has led us to lose track of the fact that, in the social world, we have quite subjective and fluid definitions of what it means to be fat or thin for different groups,” Maralani concluded.

The study was published in Sociological Science. 

Source: Cornell University

Obesity is in the Eye of the Beholder

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Obesity is in the Eye of the Beholder. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 May 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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