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Adolescents and Obesity

USF researcher says obesity affects more than teens’ physical health; social life can be diminished as well – in some cases.


Associate Professor Elizabeth Vaquera is a member of the Sociology Department.                      Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 2, 2014) – In the daily existence of obese adolescents, social and psychological health are as much a concern as physical health for USF sociologist Elizabeth Vaquera. Her work sheds light on the ways these young people’s social lives are impacted by and impact their everyday relationships in terms of friendships.

“There has been a lot of discussion during the past few years about the high rates of obesity among children and the health consequences this can have for long-term health in the U.S.,” she said. “Among kids, though, the most immediate and widespread consequences of obesity are psychosocial, especially their self-esteem, their experiences of depression and their opportunities to engage with others.”

Vaquera, an associate professor in the USF Department of Sociology, along with Argeseanu Cunnigham at Emory University, has been studying links between obesity and social relationships for the last few years, using a large national study of adolescents in U. S. schools. Together they developed their enquiry to understand what it means to be obese for the friendships and other social relations among this population.

She said there were several surprising findings in this study.

The researchers found that these obese and non-obese students report the same number of best friends. However, they found that other measures of friendships showed a different story. For example, “friendship nominations” did not match “self-reported friendships.”

They learned that “obese adolescents are more isolated at school than other adolescents. For example, while the average non-obese adolescent was named as a friend by five students at their school, the average obese adolescent would only be considered as a friend by about three,” she said.

“This is a large difference given the extensive evidence that friends are very important at this stage of the life-course. It is friends more than family that influence adolescents’ image of themselves. When we understand how relationships are made and maintained, we can get a better sense of health-related behaviors.”

Surprisingly, this held true for another group that was not obese.

“Those who were underweight had fewer friendships, while normal weight and simply overweight kids were most socially integrated. Thus, it is not only the heavier kids that struggle with their social relations; it is also the very thin ones. This is a story you do not hear on the news very often.”

Ethnicity makes a difference

Another issue became evident in the study.

“Obesity seems to be a much bigger issue for the friendships of white adolescents than those of other adolescents, especially African Americans,” Vaquera said. “Obese Whites were picked by significantly fewer schoolmates as friends, while, after we accounted for other characteristics, being obese did not reduce further the number of school friends for non-White adolescents.”

She suggests that this finding may speak to what we typically regard as a matter of beauty being in the eye of the beholder – culturally speaking.

“Perhaps what we’re seeing here is differences in what adolescents perceive to be beautiful, desirable and healthy among children of different racial and ethnic groups,” Vaquera said. “So perhaps the image of the slim adolescent is more the ideal among Whites than among African American and Hispanic youths.

A few other things are still puzzling in this research, Vaquera said.

“We did consider the mean weight of adolescents at the school, thinking that maybe these patterns are emerging because maybe at schools where almost everyone is heavy, being obese may not matter for making friends, but this explanation did not account for the differences we were seeing.”

Vaquera is looking for the practical implications of their findings.

“One issue that emerges is that anti-obesity messages have to be carefully crafted not to harm children’s social well-being,” she said. “Focusing more on being fit and active and eating healthily and less on physical appearance may not further isolate kids who are struggling with their weight.”

She also says there is a need to understand better “how kids perceive their own bodies and those of others in a diverse society like ours. Why are some adolescents more rejected by their peers than others of the same weight?”

Gaining this understanding will affect “how we can promote healthy behaviors while also maintaining self-esteem and social integration, and perhaps even using friendships to promote healthy behaviors.”

That’s the focus of the research Vaquera is conducting now.

“We are currently working on writing a grant proposal that will focus on those ‘cultural variations’ especially among immigrant youth and how they adopt obesity-related behaviors,” she said.

Vaquera’s main academic interests are childhood and adolescence as well as immigrants, racial and ethnic relations, Hispanic issues, education and quantitative methods. She teaches courses on social inequalities in childhood and adolescence, sociology of education and sociological statistics.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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