The school bias for skinny kids

18 Jun

A national study of childhood obesity investigates how weight impacts academic performance. According to the study:

[Researchers] compared the academic performance of students who were obese in kindergarten or first grade and remained so through fifth grade with children who were never obese. The data also included teacher reports of children’s interpersonal skills and feelings such as sadness or loneliness.

When children were tested one-on-one in math, those who were obese began scoring lower than their peers in first grade, the study found. The timing suggests that the relationship between obesity and poor academic performance takes root as children progress in school, [lead researcher Sara] Gable said.

“Kids who start school with weight problems come to kind of understand that, you know what? Maybe other people don’t like me because of this,” she said. “I don’t believe these children are ‘less smart,’ but I do believe if they’re put into a situation where they’re being expected to perform … they don’t perform as well.”

The study’s findings persisted across demographic differences, including race, household income, maternal educational attainment and employment status, and parental expectations for their child’s educational achievement  (

Given that obesity has correlations with race and class, the issue here adds a critical dimension to the conversation about achievement gaps along race and class lines.

The study also challenges a normative convention, which is that we don’t talk about weight in general and obesity in particular. Even the researchers behind this study at times hedge their language, referring to kids “with weight problems” when they mean obese or fat kids (as opposed to kids who struggle to put on weight).

In the US, we try to pretend we don’t see fat people, tacitly claiming weightblindness, much in the same way that people claim colorblindness. But we do see. We just choose to be weight-mute.

The consequence? Giving free rein to social and self-directed weight bias, and even validating it (in trying not to look, we can give the impression that we don’t value or even acknowledge obese people). And the bias is double-edged: it protects thin kids while disadvantaging the fat. And while being protected by a positive bias may not seem like something we need to stop, I’d argue otherwise. It’s not healthy, helpful or resilience-building for someone to associate their intelligence or ability with their thinness, and so I don’t want to perpetuate any association between weight and academic performance. Period.

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