Weight relates to dating, marriage and marital satisfaction, Cornell studies find

Although high school women are more concerned about their weight than men are about theirs, the women are more willing than men to date an overweight person. Once married, obese husbands are less happy with their marriages than other men, but men who have lost weight report fewer marital problems than obese or average-weight men or men who have gained weight during marriage. Obese wives, on the other hand, are happier with their marriages than average-weight wives. While newly-married women gain more weight than other wives do, or men do proportionately, few gain a lot during their first year of marriage.

These are some of the recent findings of Jeffery Sobal, a Cornell nutritional sociologist who studies the sociology of obesity and the relationship between obesity and dating, marriage and marital satisfaction.

"Basically, we're finding that you are what you weigh and you weigh what you are," said Sobal, associate professor of nutritional sciences. "In other words, body weight is largely a reflection of one's culture, socioeconomic and marital status, life stage and ethnicity."

Some cultures value big round bodies, though not the United States. In this country, the higher one's socioeconomic status, the thinner a person is likely to be. Married people weigh more than the unmarried, parents weigh more than nonparents and whites weigh less -- and value thinness more -- than Hispanics or African Americans, reports Sobal with Cornell colleague Carol Devine, assistant professor of nutritional sciences. They are authors of the chapter, "Social Aspects of Obesity: Influences, Consequences, Assessment, and Interventions," in the new book Overweight and Weight Management, edited by Sharron Dalton (ASPEN 1997).

"While the population of this country -- and the world for that matter -- is getting fatter, ideals about body weight increasingly emphasize slimness. Society tends to reject obese individuals and subject them to severe stigmatization and discrimination in many social arenas, including education, employment, marriage, housing and health care," Sobal said. "Such discrimination is particularly harmful because it obstructs obese people from entering important and desirable roles in society, such as student, employee and spouse. Such discrimination can have a major impact on a person for their entire life."

In a study of 786 high school students, Sobal with then-Cornell undergraduate students Vasiliki Nicolopoulos and Jennifer Lee examined how much prejudice students felt in dating obese people. In a paper published in the International Journal of Obesity (Vol. 19, pp. 376-381, 1995), the authors reported that dating someone of the right weight was much more important to high school men than to high school women.

In addition, women were more likely to consider themselves overweight and had more stringent body weight ideals than men had about women. Women were also much more concerned about being the right weight than men were.

"Men had less tolerance for overweight partners than did women, consistently reporting less comfort in dating overweight people," the authors wrote.

To examine how body weight is related to marital unhappiness and problems, Sobal and Cornell colleagues Barbara S. Rauschenback and Edward Frongillo used data on 1,980 married individuals. The sample was from the National Survey of Personal Health Practices and Consequences conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in two waves in 1979-1980.

While the authors found that body weight was not associated with most aspects of marital quality, several relationships emerged as significant.

"Obese women were happier with their marriages than other women, whereas obese men had more marital problems other men. Men who gained weight were more likely to report marital problems than men who lost weight, while women who gained weight were more likely to be happy compared with those who lost weight," the authors reported in the Journal of Family Issues (Vol. 16, November 1995, pp. 746-763).

"One theory about why obese women were happier with their marriages is related to recognizing their decreased value in the marriage market in a society that stigmatizes obesity. As a result, obese women are more likely to be satisfied with their current marital condition compared with opportunities for seeking a new partner. In other words, women appear to internalize and accept the negative assessments of their obesity," the authors said.

Obese men, on the other hand, may be more likely to have marital problems because their wives may be pressuring them to lose weight; such pressure may lead to hostility and conflict. Also, the authors speculate that men are less likely to accept the negative social view about body weight than women.

The same three researchers also analyzed data on 2,436 respondents from the same survey to see how a change in marital status affected weight change in one year. In a study published in Obesity Research (Vol. 3, July 1995, pp. 319-327), the researchers noted gender differences in the rate of body weight changes after marriage, with more immediate changes in women than men.

"Our findings show that women tend to change weight more in that first year of marriage than men do," Sobal noted. "Other studies have shown that during the first two years of marriages, husbands and wives tend to exercise less and eat more but only husbands gained weight. Our previously published study showed that married men are fatter and more likely to be obese than never married or previously married men. These differences, however, do not emerge during the first year of marriage."

The studies were supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.

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