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Obesity Is in the Eye of the Beholder: BMI and Socioeconomic Outcomes across Cohorts

Vida Maralani, Douglas McKee

Sociological Science, April 19, 2017
DOI 10.15195/v4.a13

The biological and social costs of body mass cannot be conceptualized in the same way. Using semiparametric methods, we show that the association between body mass index (BMI) and socioeconomic outcomes such as wages, being married, and family income is distinctly shaped by gender, race, and cohort rather than being above a specific threshold of BMI. For white men, the correlation between BMI and outcomes is positive across the “normal” range of BMI and turns negative near the cusp of the overweight range, a pattern that persists across cohorts. For white women, thinner is nearly always better, a pattern that also persists across cohorts. For black men in the 1979 cohort, the association between BMI and wages is positive across the normal and overweight ranges for wages and family income and inverted U–shaped for marriage. For black women in the 1979 cohort, thinner is better for wages and marriage. By the 1997 cohort, however, the negative association between body mass and outcomes dissipates for black Americans but not for white Americans. In the social world, “too fat” is a subjective, contingent, and fluid judgment that differs depending on who is being judged, who does the judging, and the social domain.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Vida Maralani: Department of Sociology, Cornell University
Email: vida.maralani@cornell.edu

Douglas McKee: Department of Economics, Cornell University
Email: douglas.mckee@cornell.edu

Acknowledgements: We thank Maurice Gesthuizen, Richard Breen, and Jason Fletcher for their comments and suggestions and Sam Stabler, Luke Wagner, Kate Bradley, and Isadora Milanez for providing superb research assistance.

This research uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997, and also data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.

  • Citation: Maralani, Vida, and Douglas McKee. 2017. “Obesity Is in the Eye of the Beholder: BMI and Socioeconomic Outcomes across Cohorts.” Sociological Science 4: 288-317.
  • Received: January 30, 2017
  • Accepted: February 27, 2017
  • Editors: Jesper B. Sørensen, Stephen Morgan
  • DOI: 10.15195/v4.a13