Gender and Reinforcing Associations between Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Body Mass over the Life Course


Using the 1957-1993 data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, we explore reciprocal associations between socioeconomic status (SES) and body mass in the 1939 birth cohort of non-Hispanic white men and women. We integrate the fundamental cause theory, the gender relations theory, and the life course perspective to analyze gender differences in (a) the ways that early socioeconomic disadvantage launches bidirectional associations of body mass and SES and (b) the extent to which these mutually reinforcing effects generate socioeconomic disparities in midlife body mass. Using structural equation modeling, we find that socioeconomic disadvantage at age 18 is related to higher body mass index and a greater risk of obesity at age 54, and that this relationship is significantly stronger for women than men. Moreover, women are more adversely affected by two mechanisms underlying the focal association: the obesogenic effect of socioeconomic disadvantage and the SES-impeding effect of obesity. These patterns were also replicated in propensity score-matching models. We conclude that gender and SES act synergistically over the life course to shape reciprocal chains of two disadvantaged statuses: heavier body mass and lower SES.


Sociology and Anthropology

Document Type





disadvantage, gender, life course, obesity, socioeconomic status

Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of health and social behavior