Body image can be a tricky enough thing to navigate in adulthood: for young people, it can be even more difficult. Research suggests that adolescence is a “pivotal time” for the development of positive or negative body image — and that poor body image can in turn have a devastating impact on overall self-esteem.
But how someone looks doesn’t just change how they feel about themselves — it can change the way other people treat them, too. One 2013 study found that weight was a factor in graduate school admissions, with overweight applicants less likely to receive an offer. And now research published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology suggests this bias can start before students are even in their teens.
Past research has found that obesity is related to poorer educational achievement, though exactly why has not been established. Kristin Finn and colleagues at Canisius College wondered whether it might come down to discrimination and stigma, pointing to several other studies that suggest this could be the case. A 2013 paper, for instance, found that obesity was related to assessment of academic performance but not to standardised test scores: overweight children were just as smart but not as successful, as that research put it.
To investigate this hypothesis further, the team recruited 133 teachers from suburban middle and high schools in New York State; the teachers were a variety of ages and taught a range of subjects. Recruited at staff meetings, participants were asked to take part in a study ostensibly looking at the validity of school grading, and were given a short, handwritten essay on health and fitness to evaluate, written by an eleven-year-old student. The essays had been gathered from a separate classroom writing exercise and chosen precisely because they were of average quality — external educators had rated them neither excellent nor poor.
Participants were also provided with a picture of a young girl, purportedly the author of the essay — in one condition, a picture of a ‘healthy’ weight child, and in the other a picture of an overweight child. Photographs were, in fact, of the same girl — one was simply a digitally altered version, designed to add 20 pounds of weight. After reading the essay, participants filled in a brief survey assessing the student and their essay, and also described their own beliefs about biases in grading.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team found that teachers believed characteristics such as race, gender, weight or attractiveness had “very little influence” on the grades they gave their students.
But weight did in fact have a significant effect on the scores students received. Teachers were significantly more likely to recommend overweight students for tutoring or remedial help, judged their work as less neat than their non-overweight counterparts, and gave their essays lower grades overall — even though the essays were exactly the same. They also judged overweight students to have worked much harder than non-overweight students — perhaps because they were seen as less capable and therefore in greater need to try. Interestingly, even though teachers gave the overweight students lower grades, they didn’t consider the quality of their essays to be any lower.
The team suggests their findings illustrate the “weight-biased attitudes” often present in teachers: that although students can try just as hard or produce work of equally high quality, stereotypes about what it means to be overweight warp educators’ perceptions.
The study only used images of white girls, so the way that weight interacts with other identities would be worth further research — how does weight interact with race, for example, and do the findings hold for male students, too? The team also notes that their research could be replicated with photographs that were not digitally altered or were full length, and the weight of teacher was also not taken into consideration: would an overweight teacher still hold the same biases?
Tackling bad body image in teenagers is a vital step towards the nurturing of happy, healthy adults. But to do that, deeply enmeshed attitudes towards weight will have to be undone. The first step may simply be acknowledging they exist — it’s notable that teachers were not aware that such biases affected the way they graded. Becoming more cognisant of the various factors that influence how we see other people is key. Overweight students are just as good: they should be treated as such.