ITHACA, N.Y. — Doctors have their own empirical definition for what constitutes someone being “too fat,” but for the rest of us, gender, race, and the generation we grew up in play the biggest roles in whether we view a person as overweight, a new study finds.
“‘Too fat’ in the medical world is objective. You can measure it. But in the social world, it’s not. It’s subjective,” says the study’s co-author Vida Maralani, an associate professor of sociology at the university, in a news release.
Researchers at Cornell University examined a set of about 6,000 teens and young adults in 1979, all of whom fell into one of four demographic categories: being a white male, white female, black male, or black female. Then in 1997, another group of 6,000 teens and young adults were again recruited for a second leg of the study.
Upon being interviewed, each group was then surveyed about seven years later. In addition to physical attributes, the authors also recorded an individual’s wages, family income, and marital status. The researchers hoped to determine how these variables intersected with one’s weight.
The researchers found that for white men, having an average body mass index (BMI) was most conducive to being successful in society. Those who were too thin or too heavy were more likely to face scrutiny.
For white women, however, having a thin figure was associated with a better likelihood of being married and possessing a higher personal and family income. The skinnier, the better of an outcome.
These findings held constant in both the 1970s and 1990s.
“The patterns for all women in the 1979 cohort and white women in the 1997 cohort remind us that norms of thinness dominate in women’s lives at work and at home,” the authors write in their findings.
Meanwhile, for African-Americans, the weight-related trends by gender mirrored those of their white counterparts in 1979, but had changed by 1997.
“For African-Americans, the link between body mass and these outcomes dissipates by the late 1990s; people seem to have become more accepting of larger bodies,” says Maralani. “But that’s not true for whites.”
Nevertheless, the researchers found that over time, the correlation between being overweight and being married significantly weakened for all groups.
Perhaps surprisingly, the study seems to suggest that white women are penalized the most financially for their looks— i.e., there was an inverse correlation between weight and wages.
“Obesity is in the eye of the beholder,” says Maralani. “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.”
The study’s findings were published last month in the journal Sociological Science.