Here we are again at that time of the year when we are encouraged to replace our eggnog with diet shakes and to join some weight loss program or another. One (somewhat annoying) commercial this year features a boney actress swinging her hips erratically while proclaiming, “This program saved my marriage!” Repeated viewing of this ad has led my kids to ask, what kind of man would leave his wife just because she gained a few extra pounds?
Diet programs aren’t the only ones jumping on the New Year’s band wagon of self-reform – academic journals also take this opportunity to publish papers on the effect of obesity. And so, this makes it the perfect time of year to see if there is anything new we can say about the relationship between obesity and divorce.
A new paper published in the journal Economics and Human Biology looks for evidence of this relationship in older adults (age 51-70) and finds that married women are thinner than any other type of women (single, divorced, or widowed) while married men are heavier than any other type of men.
Almost 36% of divorced and separated women are obese compared to 27.5% of women who married (and stayed married) before the age of 40 and 24.5% of women who married (and stayed married) after the age of 40.
Only 24% of divorced and separated men are obese compared to 29% of men who married (and stayed married) before the age of 40 and 30% of men who married (and stayed married) after the age of 40.
The argument for this differential relationship between body weight and marital status for men and women is that heavy women are so disadvantaged on the marriage market that once they divorce they are more likely to stay that way because both thin men and heavy men prefer to have relationships thin women.
Heavy men, on the other hand, may be slightly disadvantaged on the marriage market, but thin men perform well on the singles market and so are willing to stay single for longer periods of their life while they search for the perfect (i.e. thin) wife.
This result, married women are thin relative to divorced women, may make you jump to the conclusion that excess body weight is causing divorce, and you might be correct. It is also likely, however, that thinner women divorce and transition to a new relationship (and therefore appear in the data as “married” or “cohabitating”) and that heavier women divorce and transition to being alone (and therefore are more likely to appear in the data as “divorced”).
Just in case you were wondering if there is a third alternative, that is that women become obese after they divorce, that probably isn’t the case since the same data shows that women tend to lose weight in the first two years following the end of their marriage.
The truth is that we never really know what ends a marriage, but the evidence is pretty suggestive that being a woman who is obese does seem to increase the probability of divorce in a way that does not affect obese men.
The good news for older divorced women who hope to find love is that shedding any extra weight should make them a hot commodity on the late-in-life marriage market – after all they are competing on a market in which over one third of the women are obese.
Perhaps they should put little tidbit of information in the commercials.
Wilson, Sven. (2012). “Marriage, gender and obesity in later life” Economics and Human Biology 10 (2012): pp 431-453.