Study: Obese Girls Are More Likely to Avoid Going to College

Reader Christine tipped me off to this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, with a special request that I get in there and debunk the fat prejudice going on in comments, or at least invite my readers to do so. Frankly, I waste enough energy dealing with my own ignorant trolls; I don’t need to fight someone else’s. But you are all cordially invited to go tell “Bill” to stick it where the sun don’t shine.

I’m more interested in considering what this article might mean.

According to a study published in the July issue of the journal Sociology of Education, obese adolescent girls are half as likely to go to college as are non-obese girls, and those who attended a high school where obesity was uncommon were even less likely to enroll.

My first thought was that obesity is correlated with poverty — but the article says obese boys are no less likely to go to college than non-obese ones. So this could, in fact, be more of a feminist issue, with poorer families scraping to send boys to college but not girls — but I doubt that explains all of it. Or very much of it.

I think this is more telling:

The study, which tracked 11,000 teenagers, also found that obese teen girls were more likely to consider suicide, have negative self-images, and use alcohol and marijuana than their non-obese peers.

I’m sure that shocks exactly no one who’s ever been a fat adolescent girl. But sadly, it’s yet another parallel between being gay and being fat: being ostracized and ridiculed as an adolescent leads to higher instances of self-destructive behavior, depression, and even suicide. That’s pretty much a no-brainer, but of course there are plenty of people like Bill to argue that being fat intrinsically equals being self-destructive, so these girls were lost causes to begin with, and fat prejudice has nothing to do with it. Yeah, that makes way more sense than the wacky notion that being treated like shit every day makes you hate yourself.

Note that girls who went to high schools where obesity was uncommon were even less likely to go to college. Statistically, it’s likely that obesity being uncommon = wealthier district. Wealthier district, in my experience = more emphasis on college prep and more pressure to go to college. Yet fat girls in these districts bow out of college even more often than girls in presumably less wealthy districts. You suppose that could have anything to do with them getting the message even more strongly that they’re unwanted outsiders who don’t belong in an educational environment?

I haven’t read the study yet, just this squib about it, but I have no reason to think the findings aren’t true — which kinda makes me want to barf. It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to leave home and go to college, and after surviving the snakepit of high school, not many adolescent fat girls are bursting with faith in their abilities and worth as human beings. And that’s without getting into the practical reasons not to go: that those who don’t commute will be forced to live closely — possibly in the same room — with fat-hating strangers instead of their families; that dining halls involve the opportunity for all sorts of strangers to observe your eating habits; that too many colleges have molded chair/desk combos that fat people can’t fit into comfortably or at all; that too many professors, being part of this culture, will assume that fat students are stupid and lazy.

And until this culture figures out that low self-esteem is not the result of being fat, but of being fucking tortured for being fat, I can’t say I have a lot of hope that this will change.

21 thoughts on “Study: Obese Girls Are More Likely to Avoid Going to College

  1. I’ve been wanting to say this to this community since I started reading the blog: go to your library and check out any one of these books: Andre Dubus’ short story collection titled Adultery and Other Choices OR his Selected Stories OR the anthology The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. All these, and a few more that I can’t remember right now, contain a short story by Dubus called “The Fat Girl.”

    This man got it…in 1975. (And it indirectly relates to your post about college and fatness.)

    Also, I teach in a public university in a state where state-funded college scholarships are not extremely difficult to get for a smart kid without much money.

    There are fat girls here…but not many.

    Do with that what you will.

  2. All these, and a few more that I can’t remember right now, contain a short story by Dubus called “The Fat Girl.”

    How the hell have I not read that yet? I’ve even heard of it before, so I have no excuse. I’m on it.

  3. I can’t help but be grateful I didn’ t get fat until partway through college… and that my genetics indicate that any children my fiance and I have probably won’t either (if at all). I never had to be a fat adolescent girl, but I can imagine what it would be like, and my heart goes out to them.

    This: “Obesity has been identified as a serious public-health issue, but these results indicate the harmful effects extend far beyond physical health,” made me so angry, because these girls not going to college is not the result of obesity, it’s the result of the way society treats them for being obese. Do these researchers really think it’s the fat cells on their bodies causing them to “[be] more likely to consider suicide, have negative self-images, and use alcohol and marijuana than their non-obese peers.”?

  4. I wish they’d cut the “public health issue” crap already. “Obesity” is not frigging tuberculosis. You can’t “catch” my fat ass from sitting next to it!

  5. You know, I totally viewed college as an escape. My worth was determined by my smarts and how well I did at school, so moving away seemed like the best idea ever.

    Right now, I feel incredibly lucky that, while my body was shamed at every turn, my brain was held up as worthy.

  6. Do these researchers really think it’s the fat cells on their bodies causing them to “[be] more likely to consider suicide, have negative self-images, and use alcohol and marijuana than their non-obese peers.”?

    No, they think it’s our inherent insanity, which has concurrently caused us to stuff our faces and fool around with razorblades.

  7. I went to a very good college, but I was always encouraged to do well in school and I even had respect from the other kids at school for my academic abilities (at least towards the end of high school). Come to think of it, though, my town was mostly lower-middle-class, which apparently acted in my favor. Certainly I hated my body and couldn’t imagine anyone finding me attractive but I didn’t base my entire self-worth on that. On the other hand, I was the only fat girl taking the honors classes.

  8. I was fat and blue collar at a wealthy public school. (BTW, in the USA there should not be wealthy and poor public schools.) I was in college track courses making A’s and B’s in everything but math. I got extremely high scores on the college boards. NOBODY discussed college with me. Not my teachers, not the administrators, and certainly not the counselors whose JOB it was. I went to college largely because my boyfriend went and told me about it and it seemed like a learner’s paradise compared to our sterile high school environment. My parents were disappointed that I wasn’t going to get married and have babies right away and didn’t really understand why a girl would go to college at all. So I worked my way through. Compared to high school dorm life was heaven. I had a fat phobic roommate but was otherwise popular. :)

  9. Off topic a little but not much, Psyche, I was poor (not fat at the time), did spectacularly in high school, and no one talked to me about college, either.

    Much later I learned that there were ways a poor girl could get there, and I took them.

    Imagine that — discrimination against the poor. ;)

  10. I recall reading about a study several years ago that found that fat girls got less financial and emotional support from their family for persuing higher education than thin girls. What’s more, this was true across economic classes so it wasn’t just that fat people were more likely to be poor in the first place. Amazingly, I’ve actually found an article on this study instead of relying on a very old memory. That’s the trouble with following fat acceptance for over a decade. I learned about things years ago that I remember, but don’t remember where I heard from.

    Anyway, continued research then found that it was a matter of parental choice to withhold support from fat girls. The studies found no such hesitation in supporting fat boys.

    I still remember starting college as an eager young FA and being utterly dismayed at how few fat women attended my school. I went from a high school where fat girls were, well, there to a college where fat women were nearly non-existant. It was a major degree of culture shock that I never really got used to. The community there, for all its positives, just didn’t feel very real.

  11. I was shocked and floored when I read an article about this. In particular, the lack of interest that was reported about the cause of the “mental health and behavioral problems” that the writer was reporting on.

    And, yeah! What meowser said.

  12. I was well-qualified to go to college – in the top 10% of my graduating HS class – but the closer I got to it, the more I realized the last thing I wanted to do with my life was prolong the school experience. You watch stupid college movies and they treat fat girls no better than they do in stupid high school movies – which feel a lot like your own high school experience if you grew up like I did, being laughed at and ostracized.

    Of course, I had worse things than fat to be made fun of for sometimes – I was an agnostic in a Bible Belt town and vocal about it, I didn’t have a boyfriend – not because I’m fat, but because I preferred older men (“ewwwww gross!”) and I was also a quiet bisexual (“ewwww grosser!”), I was in a single parent family receiving SS assistance since my father died (“lazy immoral cow!”), and since I was more studious than other kids in my classes, they used me for homework because they figured I’d give up because I was desperate for attention.

    And sometimes I did, just because I felt like it was expected of me. Just like college was expected of me. But after that was done with, I never wanted to be in a classroom again. And that was the worst thing – admitting I didn’t wanna go to college lost me my real friends, my teacher friends who I’d bonded with, and it brought more. I guess I am a stereotype of a fat girl who didn’t wanna go to college and wasted her life away. In some ways, it is wasted. But tomorrow’s my six year anniversary with my wife who I moved to MA to be with, and even though I’m disabled now I don’t care if people call me a lazy cow sponging off the government. I’ll never have to be in that abusive environment again.

    Also, I can get scholarships now to go to school, and I’m gonna do it soon. I won’t be with those classmates who hurt me; I’ll just be the older girl with the cane in the back row doing her work and ignoring the haters.

    I guess it just has to be the right time for everyone. Even fat girls.

  13. I am a fat girl that dropped out of highschool, never applied myself in school because there was no point. I was torture, not by taunting, but by the fact that no one wanted to be seen with me at parties and stuff. Highschool was horrible. I eventually went to college and now university, but I stayed in my home town. It’s horrible to live in fear of the reactions of people to my body, and that’s why I haven’t gone far from home. I always felt too fat to leave, to fat to pursue higher education, no one would accept me. College and university really helped, I applied myself and saw that I could do it. Now, I am planning my escape, fatter than ever, but my attitude has changed and along with it the way people treat me, and especially the way I treat myself. I am nervous…well scared shitless to leave, but I think it will be the best thing for me.

  14. Is there anywhere I can get a hold of the article?

    I am currently doing postgrad study and have several undergrad degrees. However I have done all my study by distance education.

    Keep up the good work Kate!

  15. This is interesting to me because, in some ways, I think I grew up in an atypical situation. Fat pretty much since the beginning, I had an incredibly supportive (and — to varying degrees — fat) family who never allowed me to use my size as an excuse for doing (or not doing) anything. I participated in a gazillion extracurricular activities all the way through school, was very active in the community, and was assertive and outgoing in everything I did. Gosh, I’m still like that today at the tender age of 41. ;-)

    Despite my freakishly “normal” life, its attendant honors and kudos, and my seemingly unusual high esteem (that is, for a fat girl), when it came time for me to go to college, I did fear that my weight would interfere with the process. I was afraid that I would be rejected by the schools where I applied, that the required physical would somehow be used as code to discriminate against me, that the other students would all be perfect size 8s and incapable of understanding/accepting my never-size-8 self.

    Thankfully, that period of insecurity was relatively short as I was accepted to every college where I applied, the weigh-in at my physical apparently didn’t disqualify me, and I found a campus full of individual people with individual body types and all sorts of their own individual insecurities. I immediately fell back into try-everything-at-least-once-and-do-it-well mode, and can happily say that, with rare exception, my college experience was as rich and varied and interesting — and happy and fulfilling — as my fortunate primary and secondary education had been.

    That said, it’s frustrating to think that that blip of insecurity I encountered becomes a full-blown obstacle to higher education for some women. Given my own experience (the only light through which I can view the situation), it seems to me a massive effort to improve the overall self-esteem of teenage girls is in order.

    Thanks for letting me extrapolate on this thought. Kate, I completely dig your blog, and respect and cheer your voice on this soapbox. It also appears that you have exceptionally insightful commenters, which makes reading SP all the more fun. ::enthusiastic applause::

  16. A physical to be admitted to university? Do people “fail” a physical, get knocked back for admission as a result? Why?

    Sorry, I’ve never heard of such a thing. What possible justification could there be for denying admission to an educational institution on the basis of an illness or disability? (And how could it be legal to do so?)

  17. I think I had to have a physical before college, but it was after I got admitted and performed by my own doctor. They just needed the records. I don’t think (though I’m not certain) that its about proving physical worthiness for an education as much as its just about making sure you aren’t bringing in any infectuous diseases into the campus. Not that I think you’d be denied for having TB or something. Just that you might be expected to undergo treatment first. Moreso, it just gives the campus docs something to work from whenever you visit the clinic with the flu.

    Of course, I wasn’t fat when I applied for college and I can understand why a fat person would be anxious about the motives. With some cause, obviously, because I’m sure a lot of interviewers would give bad marks to a fat applicant. I know I had high school teachers who said they advised bright fat students in the past to avoid interviews out of fear that they would be judged by their body and not their academic merits.

  18. Kate, I would just like to say this study is absolutely not true!
    I’m a size 22/24, black and a graduate of the University of Michigan.

    I also attended Western Michigan for two years and lived in the dorms. At both schools, the campuses were so big, all we did was walk, walk, walk. I actually was bigger than then ( I was
    a size 26/28) I am now.

    What can I say about my college experiences? Let’s see,
    I made a TON of friends both thin and fat, I had 4
    boyfriends (two were okay, one was lousy and one
    was great–I actually met more guys there!) and although the seats were small, even at that size, I was able to fit in the chairs.

    I actually encountered more RACISM than fatphobia. Talking
    with other people, and because of the whole affirmative
    action hoopla, there was more divisiveness among black
    and white lines. I am shocked that this is even an issue.

    I’m in graduate school now at a predominately women’s
    college and met people from all walks of life. My size
    has never really been an issue until the American media
    made it an issue. It’s sad that the 50-billion dollar diet
    industry puts so much pressure on women.

    And can anyone say Camryn Manheim, who has a master’s
    degree from NYU?

  19. Piper, I have a Master’s, too, and plenty of other people around here have Ph.D.s. It’s awesome that you had a good college experience, fat-wise, but the point of this study isn’t that fat girls don’t go to college at all — the vast majority of people around here contradict that as much as you do. The point is, too many fat girls who are qualified are opting out of college. Just because we weren’t among them doesn’t mean it’s not true of plenty of young women.

  20. This made me so sad that I still haven’t finished reading it or any of the comments.
    I know part of the reason I didn’t aspire to go away to college. Or to a lot of things.
    At some point I’ll read it all. And probably write, on my own, about it.

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