A new study from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine says that how popular a girl perceives herself to be will affect how she gains weight - and how much. The study asked girls aged 12 - 18 a series of questions to rank their own assessment of their popularity, recorded the girls' BMI, and then came back two years later to repeat BMI measurements. The researchers apparently adjusted for a host of variables, including "age, race/ethnicity, baseline BMI, diet, television viewing, depression, global and social self-esteem, menarche, height growth, mother's BMI, and pretax household income" and still found that "adolescent girls who placed themselves on the low end of the school subjective social status scale had a 69% increased odds of having a 2-unit increase in BMI during the next 2 years compared with other girls."
While a part of me wants to react with the "well, yes... of course" reaction of the sort of obvious science that people do where you already know the answer, someone just had to quantify it, another part of me wonders if they're really looking at the right thing at all. If the researchers looked at an earlier age, would they find the same thing, or would they find other causes of weight or social ostricization that lead to either increased weight gain or feeling unpopular? Perhaps the girls who feel they're popular feel like they have to keep up an unhealthy physical image, or partake in disordered eating habits (anorexia, bulimia, etc). I don't know, it just seems a little too neat.
The other thing that seems a little too neat is the suggestion that schools and parents should work on fostering social skills in girls, as if this alone will increase their popularity. I think by very virtue of the concept, some girls will be more and some less popular - improving social skills isn't likely to change that. As far as I recall being a teenager, there's always something to ostracize someone with. Either they're too tall, too short, have developed faster than the rest of the class (or slower), look different, move oddly, aren't coordinated enough for cheerleading, spend too much time with computers or games or any number of things that kids look for as defining differentials. Suggesting that there's a way to eliminate a popularity battle seems to indicate that it's definitely been a while since the researchers were in high school themselves.