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Kids Shy Away From Fat Friends

An analysis of middle school and high school social networks indicates that a high BMI can mean fewer friends.
(Photo: Warner Brothers)

(Photo: Warner Brothers)

If getting picked last for the dodgeball team in PE class seems upsetting, try getting picked last as a friend. Studies since 1961 have shown that obese children are consistently ranked last by their peers when evaluating image lineups of potential friends, including disfigured and handicapped individuals.

In a study published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers dove further into the psychologically traumatizing world of middle school and high school friendships. Stepping away from the use of two-dimensional images for social analysis, Arizona State University associate professors David R. Schaefer and Sandra D. Simpkins relied on students’ reports of their actual interactions and health data to evaluate the social dynamics between individuals considered “fat” and “thin." They discovered even more evidence that overweight kids have an unusually difficult time finding friends.

Even medical professionals mistakenly portray weight as "a moral thing, like being thin is about character and self control."

Schaefer and Simpkins surveyed 58,987 students from 88 middle schools and high schools across the country who participated in the 1994 to 1996 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Asking students to identify 10 friends (five male, five female) attending the same school, the researchers tried to figure out whether Body Mass Index (BMI) played a role in the selections. "On average, overweight youths were less likely than nonoverweight youths to be selected as a friend," the researchers write. They labeled the individual initiating the friendship as the “ego” and the individual targeted for friendship as the “alter." According to the results, a non-overweight ego was 30 percent more likely to seek out a non-overweight peer (anyone above the 85 percentile in BMI was considered “overweight”) as a companion, while an overweight ego was willing to begin a friendship with an alter of any BMI.

Should we really blame the non-overweight children for their cruel bias? As Leslie Sim, a Mayo Clinic eating disorders expert, told the New York Times, even medical professionals mistakenly portray weight as “a moral thing, like being thin is about character and self control.” Research seems to back this theory up: A 2009 paper in Psychological Research and Behavior Management notes that common stereotypes of the obese are “lazy, inactive, stupid, ugly and sloppy." This misguided perception almost justifies the non-overweight children’s avoidance of obese friends: No insecure teen wants to be associated with any of those adjectives.

Skinny kids' refusal to associate with their overweight peers usually pushes the rejected to look elsewhere for friendship, and they seem to find refuge in the company of individuals with similar, high BMIs. Sadly, spending time with friends who have similar habits could prove detrimental to an individual trying to lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle. But the alternative isn't encouraging either. “Not having or losing friends is associated with higher depression and lower self-worth for young people," Simpkins explains, "which could exacerbate the health problems associated with being overweight."

Realistically, the obese kid is probably going to be chosen last for that game of dodgeball. But how can the skinny kids be so sure of their choice, if they don’t even give him a chance?