Being overweight influences adolescents’ relationships by increasing their likelihood of experiencing social alienation and discrimination. Its role in sexual development is relatively understudied, as are potential mechanisms through which weight may influence early sexual activity.
Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health were used in discrete-time event history analyses investigating the association between body weight, social relationships and timing of sexual debut among 8,197 respondents who were in grades 7–12 in 1994–1995 (Wave 1) and were young adults in 2001–2002 (Wave 3). Subgroup analyses explored gender and racial and ethnic variations in the association.
Overweight adolescents were less likely than their normal-weight peers to report first intercourse between Waves 1 and 3 (odds ratio, 0.9). Characteristics reflecting social alienation, including having relatively few close friends and no experience with romantic relationships, were negatively associated with first intercourse among overweight youths. Results differed by gender and race and ethnicity. Overweight females had a lower likelihood than normal-weight females of experiencing first intercourse (0.8), but no such association was evident among males. Similarly, overweight white youths—but not those from other racial and ethnic groups—had reduced odds of sexual debut (0.7).
Future studies should seek to understand the broader implications of adolescent weight status for social relationships and subsequent development, and practitioners should apply this knowledge to prevention programs. Postponement of sexual activity may benefit youths, but potential benefits and risks may depend upon the social processes involved.
Yen-hsin Alice Cheng is research fellow, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taipei. Nancy S. Landale is professor of sociology and demography, Department of Sociology and Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park.