March 1, 1996

Study shows bias against fat daughters in college aid

By Kay Albright

If you are fat and female, you are less likely to receive support from your parents to go to college than your leaner sister will, according to a KU researcher.

The research also shows that the bias against fat daughters was strongest in politically conservative families.

"The evidence looks pretty solid. Parents are apparently discriminating against their own daughters," said Chris S. Crandall, KU assistant professor of psychology. His article "Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Heavyweight Daughters?" was published in the July 1995 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Crandall said he tried to eliminate all other factors, including income, ethnicity, family size and number of children attending college. "None of those changed the result," Crandall said, noting that at least four independent replications of his findings have been made.

A 1991 study by Crandall showed that fatter women students were significantly more likely to rely on jobs, savings or financial aid to pay for college. While 74 percent of the thinner women relied on their parents for support, only 53 percent of their heavier counterparts did.

Chris S. Crandal

But Crandall found an interesting trend in his early research. "The first question would be if the parents could afford to pay. But statistical controls showed that the difference was due not to the ability to pay but to the motivation to do so."

Parents' motivation was affected by their belief in "fat stereotypes." Crandall said, "The fat stereotype - of being lazy and lacking self-discipline - is not a good prescription for a college student."

Anti-fat attitudes are associated primarily with how much a person blames fat people for their situation, Crandall said. "If you believe the fat stereotype and if you believe it is the daughter's fault that she is fat, the less likely you are to believe that she would succeed in or benefit from higher education."

This finding also ties in with Crandall's research showing that conservatism is a reliable predictor of anti-fat attitudes. "Politically conservative parents are actually very consistent in applying their world view to their own family," he said.

"One of the hallmarks of political conservatism is the belief in an individual responsibility for one's fate. So if you think it is important that people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and it is fat people's fault that they are overweight, then you are more likely to believe that your children should fund their own higher education," Crandall said.

Actually both liberal and conservative families are less likely to pay for heavyweight daughters' college expenses than for those of their leaner daughters, Crandall said, despite the comparable ability to pay.

"On average, daughters of conservative families are thinner than daughters of liberal families. One possible explanation for this finding is that conservative families are less likely to send their heavyweight daughters to college under any circumstances."

Overweight men do not seem to suffer the same discrimination, since the study showed that weight has no relation to college payment for males.

"That is pretty consistent with some of the other research on fat stereotypes. People believe weight reveals more about a woman's character than it would about a man's character. The norms for thinness are especially powerful for women," Crandall said.

Crandall's study included 1,029 college students and 3,386 high school students. Because of the small sample of nonwhites, the findings are based on white subjects. Crandall has been a faculty member at KU since 1992.

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