Obesity as an Educational Issue
by Robert Crosnoe - March 03, 2010
Youth obesity rates have risen dramatically. In general, this issue has been defined as a public health problem, and, as such, efforts to address it have mostly included schools to the extent that they can affect physical fitness, diet, and nutrition. Yet, ample evidence indicates that the stigma of obesity rising can also interfere with the educational missions of schools by disrupting the socioemotional development of young people. In this way, rising obesity rates constitute an educational issue that requires different kinds of responses from schools. In this commentary, a sociologist describes the contours of the “obesity pandemic” and puts forward several points for debate about what schools can do not just to reduce the prevalence of obesity but also to prevent the socioemotional risks of obesity from interfering with teaching and learning.
Michelle Obama has made a cause of childhood obesity, fittingly so given that American youth are heavier than ever. Typically, public discussionsled by the first lady or otherscast this issue in terms of physical health. Partly as a result, schools have been drawn into this issue in health-related capacities, such as physical activities, nutrition programs, and bans on junk food. Yet, rising obesity rates constitute far more than a public health problem, and, as such, this view of schools is too narrow. In short, obesity has implications for the educational missions of schools, not just the health of students, and schools need to consider ways to act accordingly.
Today fully one-third of children and adolescents are obese (having a weight to height ratio at or above the 95th percentile for age and gender) or overweight (85th percentile). These numbers represent a more than twofold increase over the last two decades, although much of this increase was confined to the 1990s. Importantly, such trends are more pronounced among historically disadvantaged race/ethnic minority groups (Ogden, Carroll, Curtin, Lamb, & Flegal, 2010). Although some critics have raised reasonable points about concerns over increases in obesity being overblown, evidence from multiple scientific disciplines does suggest some reason to worry. Specifically, early obesity has been linked to numerous health problems and physical impairments, both contemporaneously and into adulthood (Freedman, Mei, Srinivasan, Berenson, & Dietz, 2007; Serdula, et al., 1993). Schools have not been excluded from the push for public health interventions triggered by such short- and long-term health risks. Still, their role has been mostly limited to activities, curricula, and services targeting physical fitness and nutrition.
What cannot be emphasized enough, however, is that obesity is not simply a physical health issue. It also matters with respect to the psychosocial development of youth through the long-standing stigma attached to obesity in diverse segments of American culture. For decades, social scientists have documented how Americans, including children and adolescents, rate heavier individuals lower on desirability and attractiveness as well as on competence, personality, intelligence, and other factors seemingly unrelated to appearance (Brownell, Puhl, Schwartz, & Rudd, 2005). Not surprisingly, then, obesity comes with social risks and can be experienced very negatively. For example, obese youth tend to have fewer friends and be less integrated socially into school than their peers. They are more likely to be bullied in childhood and to be frozen out of dating in adolescence, and they exhibit more symptoms of emotional distress (Cawley, 2001; Crosnoe, Frank, & Mueller, 2008; Halpern, King, Oslak, & Udry, 2005; Janssen, Craig, Boyce, & Pickett, 2004).
Although important in general, these psychosocial risks may still strike some as outside the jurisdiction of schools. Yet, the link between psychosocial well-being and academic progress is so strong that the stigma of obesity rises to the level of an educational issue too. Indeed, social exclusion, depression, and other psychosocial ailments that seem to be associated with obesity are also implicated in academic progress. In short, young people who feel alienated at schools, think poorly of themselves, or are socially preoccupied may lack the confidence and concentration needed to meet the challenges of navigating high-stakes curricula (Roeser & Eccles, 2000; Crosnoe, 2010). As one teenager I interviewed a few years ago remarked, Sometimes you worry more about taking care of yourself than doing homework. A striking example of this feedback between the social and academic sides of schooling comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In this nationally representative sample, obese girls were significantly less likely to attend college than non-obese girls to whom they had been matched on race, social class, cognitive tests, and a variety of other factors. This disparity in college attendance rates appeared to be rooted in the higher rates of depression, substance use, and truancy among the former than the latter (Crosnoe, 2010).
Thus, more than just a matter of health, rising rates of youth obesity have the potential to interfere with individual educational trajectories in an era in which economic returns on educational attainment have reached historic highs and also to undermine school performance in an era of increased accountability. Broadening risk assessments of obesity and expanding conceptions of what schools can do about these risks, therefore, seem like worthwhile goals. I put forward this argument fully aware that schools already feel overburdened serving the needs of their students, sympathetic to the criticism that schools are too often drafted into social experiments well beyond their pedagogical goals, and aware that social dynamics among youth are difficult to intervene in or change. Still, I argue that this is a discussion worth beginning.
For example, No Child Left Behind requires schools to publicly disaggregate testing data so that the progress of at risk groups is sufficiently tracked. In this mandate, risk is defined exclusively in demographic terms (e.g., race, income). Yet, some academic disparities related to obesity approach the magnitude of poverty effects on many academic indicators. If the intent of disaggregation is to help raise achievement across groups in ways that increase overall school performance, then extending the definition of risk to non-demographic categories like obesity would seem to support this goal. Similarly, diversity curricula have been implemented in schools for years, mostly concerning race (Pfiefer, Brown, & Juvonen, 2007). As argued in a 2009 essay in Teachers College Record by Felder and Turkowitz, however, the benefits of these curricula need not be limited to demographic diversity. To the extent that such steps could be taken while being sensitive to obese youth and not unintentionally singling them out for further stigma, official efforts to view obesity as a system of achievement stratification warrant some consideration.
In my own research, I have found something schools may be able to do to protect young people facing psychosocial and related academic problems through their experiences of stigma, including the stigma of obesity. Specifically, they are more likely to be resilient when they have some venue in which they can connect to other youth and engage in activities that give them a sense of accomplishment. Such opportunities are largely created by the extracurricular activities of schools, including clubs, arts programs, and sports. That such school offerings may promote resilience in a vulnerable segment of the student population helps to support arguments against cuts to funding and time allocation for the extracurricular activities occurring in many districts.
What I have raised here are difficult issues about what schools can do about rising obesity ratesnot just the conventional view of their role in reducing obesity but also newer views about their role in blocking the psychosocial risks of obesity from undermining their educational activities. I can add one last difficult issue. The patterns I have described tend to be more pronounced among girls, especially White middle class girls for whom norms of appearance are often stricter and more enforced. Of course, this group is also among the most academically successful in the educational system. The efforts I have suggested, therefore, could have their greatest impact by helping an already successful group do even better. To the extent that we prioritize raising those at the bottom, this impact might be of questionable merit to some from a purely academic (if not mental health) perspective. Let the dialogue begin.
Despite the clear complexities of this discussion, it is one that we most surely will benefit from having. Even though obesity rates may have plateaued, they do not seem to be falling. As such, obesity is an issue for schools to deal with well into the future.
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