29 April 1999

Study Confirms Common Belief: More Fat Means Fewer Dates

Most teenagers seem to be concerned about their weight - particularly if they are gaining a few pounds. But do these concerns have any implications for dating and sexual activity of adolescents? A recent study has thrown some light onto the issue.

According to Dr. Carolyn Halpern almost all girls in her recent study saw physical attractiveness as important, and four fifths believed that having a boyfriend was either somewhat or very important. Dr. Halpern is assistant professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health The research will appear in the next issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

Differences in body fat had significant implications for dating, an activity highly valued by most girls. "For white girls in general and for black girls of higher economic status, more body fat was strongly associated with not dating," Halpern said. "This was true even among non-obese girls."

The research also showed that girls with below average fat not only had a significant advantage in getting dates, but that those with more fat were disadvantaged in getting dates. A girl of average height and weight, who is 5 feet and 3 inches tall and weighs 126 pounds, is only half as likely to date as a girl of the same height and physical maturity who weighs a below-average 110 pounds. "One reason adolescent girls are concerned about their weight is that they believe that being slim increases their chances of dating. Our data indicate they are right."

Not surprisingly, the more a subject went on dates, the more likely she was to become sexually active. After controlling for the amount of dating, however, weight seemed to have little effect on whether girls had sex.

Researchers tracked the behaviour of 200 white and black girls, aged 13 and 14, from a central North Carolina county for two years. Every six months, subjects filled out confidential questionnaires about dieting, weight concerns, dating, sexual activity - if any - and other matters. Investigators measured the girls' body fat using tests of skin-fold thickness.

On average, black girls were heavier than white girls but were less concerned about their weight, she said. However, actual body fat was the most important predictor of dieting and weight concerns for both blacks and whites. About 10 percent of whites and 30 percent of blacks in the sample were obese.

"On the one hand, you can argue that it's psychologically healthy for black girls to be comfortable with their bodies and with the normal physical changes that are taking place in their bodies," Halpern said. "The flip side is that acceptance of real obesity can result in significant health problems later in life. Ideally, we need to encourage girls to use healthy weight control practices that minimize obesity, but also avoid contributing to weight concerns that could result in eating disorders. And as our data show, the attitudes of adolescent boys are a factor in this process."

Earlier studies have shown that people who are obese during adolescence are less likely as adults to marry, complete fewer years of education and earn less money. They also face higher risks of heart disease, stroke and joint problems such as arthritis.