Obesity is in the eye of the beholder: Cornell study

ITHACA, N.Y. – Doctors have a specific definition of what it means to be overweight or obese, but in the social world, gender, race and generation matter a lot for whether people are judged as “thin enough” or “too fat,” according to a new Cornell University study.

“It looks like obesity is in the eye of the beholder,” said co-author Vida Maralani, associate professor of sociology at Cornell. “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.”

The study appeared April 19 in Sociological Science. Maralani’s co-author is Douglas McKee, senior lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Economics.

Many studies have linked obesity with poor socio-economic outcomes like lower wages, family income, marriage rates and spousal earnings. But this study is different, 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 higher a white woman’s BMI, the lower her wages. Conversely, white women with the lowest body mass had the highest wages.

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 said.

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.