June 22, 2010

Plus-Size Girls Are More Likely To Have Sex Early And Unprotected

A new study finds that overweight teen girls are more likely than thinner teen girls to start having sex earlier and are less likely to use contraceptives.

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Last month, Dr. Margaret S. Villers and other medical researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina presented their findings of a new study on the relationship between weight and sexual behavior among teen girls at the annual meeting of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.  They found that teen girls who are considered overweight or obese are more likely than thinner teen girls to start having sex at a young age, to have multiple sexual partners, and to have sex without using condoms or other forms of contraceptives.

More On The Study

Dr. Villers and her colleagues used data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control – a survey that interviews middle and high school students across the United States about a wide range of topics.  Of the study’s sample of 21,773 teen girls, the researchers found three key differences between girls classified as “normal weight” and those classified as “overweight” or “obese”:

  1. Six percent of normal weight girls had sex before the age of 13, while 11% of overweight girls and 15% of obese girls had sex before the age of 13.
  2. Thirty-nine percent of normal weight girls reported having three or more sexual partners during their teen years compared to 45% of overweight girls and 47% of obese girls.
  3. Overweight and obese girls were almost 20-30% less likely than thinner girls to use condoms or other forms of contraception.

Possible Explanations

Given the link between weight and attractiveness – a societal standard of beauty that favors skinny bodies over fat bodies – some might find the study’s findings surprising: why are heavy girls having more sex with more partners?  Dr. Villers and her fellow researchers provide two possible explanations for the difference in sexual behavior among teen girls: development during puberty and self-esteem.  The researchers suggest that overweight and obese girls may begin puberty sooner and thus develop faster, which may put them at risk from more pressure from boyfriends and friends to have sex.

The researchers also suggested that, due to the relationship between obesity and deflated self-esteem, plus-size girls may be more likely to feel unattractive.  As a result, they may start having sex earlier to keep a partner, or they may not feel good enough about themselves to say “no” to sex or to enforce contraceptive use with a partner.  MSNBC, which reported about this study last month, noted the importance of healthy diets and exercise and, more importantly, of encouraging teen girls to feel good about themselves and their bodies.

  • I haven't read the original article (and am always suspect of how popular media report on scientific studies), but I'm curious about the researchers assumption that being obese causes a deflated self-esteem.

    While I agree that American culture certainly values thinness over fatness and that influences how many people view themselves, I think it's a false assumption that this is a causative relationship. Correlated perhaps, but not causative, since there are plenty of people who feel just fine about themselves despite not being thin.

    The physical development piece I have to agree with — especially as girls are hitting puberty at seemingly earlier and earlier ages.

  • Guest

    It is my experience that overweight girls develop breasts, much larger breasts, much faster than their skinnier counterparts. So having very feminine traits that stand out may have something to do with them gaining sexual attention sooner.

  • Earthinstincts

    Given that girls who have experienced sexual trauma often gain weight and are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, I wonder if a common denominator might also be a history of rape and incest.