Tag Archives: discourse/language

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Last year the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study aiming to determine the relationship between body mass index and the risk of premature death. Body mass index, or BMI, is the ratio between your height and weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, you are “normal weight” if your ratio is between 18.5-24.9.  Everything over that is “overweight” or “obese” and everything under is “underweight.”

This study was a meta-analysis, which is an analysis of a collection of existing studies that systematically measures the sum of our knowledge.  In this case, the authors analyzed 97 studies that included a combined 2.88 million individuals and over 270,000 deaths.  They found that overweight individuals had a lower risk of premature death than so-called normal weight individuals and there was no relationship between being somewhat obese and the rate of early death. Only among people in the high range of obesity was there a correlation between their weight and a higher risk of premature death.

Here’s what it looked like.

This is two columns of studies plotted according to the hazard ratio they reported for people.  This comparison is between people who are “overweight” (BMI = 25-29.9) and people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9).  Studies that fall below the line marked 1.0 found a lower rate of premature death and studies above the line found a higher rate.

25-29

Just by eyeballing it, you can confirm that there is not a strong correlation between weight and premature death, at least in this population. When the scientists ran statistical analyses, the math showed that there is a statistically significant relationship between being “overweight” and a lower risk of death.

Here’s the same data, but comparing the risk of premature death among people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are somewhat “obese” (BMI = 30-34.9).  Again, eyeballing the results suggest that there’s not much correlation and, in fact, statistical analysis found none.

30-34.9

Finally, here are the results comparing “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are quite “obese” (BMI = 35 or higher). In this case, we do see a relationship between risk of premature death in body weight.

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It’s almost funny that the National Institutes of Health use the word normal when talking about BMI. It’s certainly not the norm – the average BMI in the U.S. falls slightly into the “overweight” category (26.6 for adult men and 25.5 for adult women) — and it’s not related to health. It’s clearly simply normative. It’s related to a socially constructed physical ideal that has little relationship to what physicians and public health advocates are supposed to be concerned with.  Normal is judgmental, but if they changed the word to healthy, they have to entirely rejigger their prescriptions.

So, do we even have an obesity epidemic? Perhaps not if we use health as a marker instead of some arbitrary decision to hate fat.  Paul Campos, covering this story for the New York Times, points out:

If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that does not increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.

That’s 79%.

It’s worth saying again: if we are measuring by the risk of premature death, then 79% of the people we currently shame for being overweight or obese would be recategorized as perfectly fine. Ideal, even. Pleased to be plump, let’s say, knowing that a body that is a happy balance of soft and strong is the kind of body that will carry them through a lifetime.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Becoming Wealthy: The Myth of Meritocracy

Flashback Friday. 

How do people in the U.S. become wealthy?  According to the myth of meritocracy, they do so by hard work: blood, sweat, tears, a trace of talent, and a tad bit of luck.  This is the story told in this two-page ad for U.S. Trust in The New Yorker:

On the first page we learn she’s rich, but she’s still a home-town girl at heart. On the second page, we learn a little about how she might have gotten so wealthy:

Note the first few sentences:

Who’s to say how it happened. A big idea. A gutsy work ethic. A lucky break here and there.

Well, uh…what about, “She inherited it”? That’s a pretty common way to end up with a whole bunch of houses and in need of a wealth management team.

The notion that rich people are rich because their parents are rich, however, interrupts the American mystique, the one where we are a country of self-made immigrants who pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.  People, even people who inherited wealth, like to think that they’re rich because they worked hard.  Hence, the romanticization of the self-made millionaire in the ad and the corresponding invisibility of the inheritance loophole.

On the flipside, this narrative also supports the converse idea that the poor are poor because of their lack of personal efforts and merits.  Perhaps they didn’t have a “big idea’ or the “gutsy work ethic” that enabled them to profit from the lucky break that they inevitably encountered, right?

This ad is just one drop in the sea of propaganda that makes it seem right and normal that a small proportion of our population is able to hoard wealth and property.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Saturday Stat: Women’s Refusal to be Deferent and the Words that Describe Them

According to data gathered from the Corpus of Contemporary American English by linguistics PhD student Nic Subtirelu, women are called “pushy” twice as often as men, while men are more likely to be described as “condescending.”

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At his blog, Linguistic Pulse, Subtirelu argues:

Condescending seems to differ from pushy and bossy in an important way, namely that it seems to acknowledge the target’s authority and power even if it does not fully accept it.

Subtirelu has also ran the numbers for “bossy” and found that it was used to described women 1.5 times more often than men.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Majority of “Stay-at-Home Dads” Aren’t There to Care for Family

At Pew Social Trends, Gretchen Livingston has a new report on fathers staying at home with their kids. They define stay at home fathers as any father ages 18-69 living with his children who did not work for pay in the previous year (regardless of marital status or the employment status of others in the household). That produces this trend:

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At least for the 1990s and early-2000s recessions, the figure very nicely shows spikes upward of stay-at-home dads during recessions, followed by declines that don’t wipe out the whole gain — we don’t know what will happen in the current decline as men’s employment rates rise.

In Pew’s numbers 21% of the stay at home fathers report their reason for being out of the labor force was caring for their home and family; 23% couldn’t find work, 35% couldn’t work because of health problems, and 22% were in school or retired.

It is reasonable to call a father staying at home with his kids a stay at home father, regardless of his reason. We never needed stay at home mothers to pass some motive-based criteria before we defined them as staying at home. And yet there is a tendency (not evidenced in this report) to read into this a bigger change in gender dynamics than there is. The Census Bureau has for years calculated a much more rigid definition that only applied to married parents of kids under 15: those out of the labor force all year, whose spouse was in the labor force all year, and who specified their reason as taking care of home and family. You can think of this as the hardcore stay at home parents, the ones who do it long term, and have a carework motivation for doing it. When you do it that way, stay at home mothers outnumber stay at home fathers 100-to-1.

I updated a figure from an earlier post for Bryce Covert at Think Progress, who wrote a nice piece with a lot of links on the gender division of labor. This shows the percentage of all married-couple families with kids under 15 who have one of the hardcore stay at home parents:

SHP-1. PARENTS AND CHILDREN IN STAY-AT-HOME PARENT FAMILY GROUPS

That is a real upward trend for stay at home fathers, but that pattern remains very rare.

See the Census spreadsheet for yourself here.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Do People Expect Hurricanes with Female Names to be Weak?

The fourth hurricane of this year’s season will be named Dolly and that might be a problem.

Dmitriy T.C. sent in a link to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using experiments, the study found that people believe that hurricanes with female names will be less deadly than those with male names.

No, not because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Because, sexism. People underestimate the power of Victoria vs. Victor, Christina vs. Christopher, Alexandra vs. Alexander.

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Does this translate into a higher death toll due to a failure to evacuate?  That we don’t know. Ed Yong at National Geographic is skeptical The researchers compared the death tolls of hurricanes with female versus male names but were unable to come up with a statistically significant difference.  It may be because of a small sample size; they only started giving male names to hurricanes in 1979.  (The researchers contest Yong’s critique here.)

Hurricane season is upon us and, according to nola.com, this year’s hurricane names will be named Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.

Maybe, to be safe, we should perhaps re-work this season’s names. I recommend Aggressor, Butch, Crowbar, Death, Evisceration, Fear, Gore, Hannibal, Ice Pick, Juggernaut, Killer, Laceration, Measles, Nerve Damage, Oblivion, Pain, Redrum, Scabies, Torture, Voluminous Agony, and Woe.

Photo: Hurricane Isabel, as seen from space. Credit: Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. Color-corrected by yours truly.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

On the False Idea that Money is a Resource

I am so pleased to have stumbled across a short excerpt from a talk by Alan Watts, forwarded by a Twitter follower.  Watts makes a truly profound argument about what money really is.  I’ll summarize it here and you can watch the full three-and-a-half minute video below if you like.

Watts notes that we like to talk about “laws of nature,” or “observed regularities” in the world.  In order to observe these regularities, he points out, we have to invent something regular against which to compare nature. Clocks and rulers are these kinds of things.

All this is fine but, all too often, the clocks and the rulers come to seem more real than the nature that is being measured.  For example, he says, we might think that the sun is rising because it’s 6AM when, of course, the sun will rise independently of our measures.  It’s as if our clocks rule the universe instead of vice versa.

He uses these observations to make a comment about wealth and poverty. Money, he reminds us, isn’t real. It’s an invented measure.  A dollar is no different than a minute or an inch.  It is used to measure prosperity, but it doesn’t create prosperity any more than 6AM makes the sun rise or a ruler gives things inches.

When there is a crisis — an economic depression or a natural disaster, for example — we may want to fix it, but end up asking ourselves “Where’s the money going to come from?”  This is exactly the same mistake that we make, Watts argues, when we think that the sun rises because it’s 6AM.  He says:

They think money makes prosperity. It’s the other way around, it’s physical prosperity which has money as a way of measuring it.  But people think money has to come from somewhere… and it doesn’t. Money is something we have to invent, like inches.

So, you remember the Great Depression when there was a slump?  And what did we have a slump of?  Money.  There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. But it’s like you came to work on building a house one day and they said, “Sorry, you can’t build this house today, no inches.”

“What do you mean no inches?”

“Just inches!  We don’t mean that… we’ve got inches of lumber, yes, we’ve got inches of metal, we’ve even got tape measures, but there’s a slump in inches as such.”

And people are that crazy!

This is backward thinking, he says.  It is allowing money to rule things when, in reality, it’s just a measure.

I encourage you to watch:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Gender at the NY Times: The Most Comprehensive Analysis Ever

In this post I present the most comprehensive analysis ever reported of the gender of New York Times writers (I think), with a sample of almost 30,000 articles.

This subject has been in the news, with a good piece the other day by Liza Mundy — in the New York Times — who wrote on the media’s Woman Problem, prompted by the latest report from the Women’s Media Center. The WMC checked newspapers’ female byline representation from the last quarter of 2013, and found levels ranging from a low of 31% female at the NYT to a high of 46% at the Chicago Sun-Times. That’s a broad study that covers a lot of other media, and worth reading. But we can go deeper on the NYTimes, thanks to the awesome data collecting powers of my colleague Neal Caren.

Here are the results based on 21,440 articles published online from October 23, 2013 to February 25, 2014.

Women’s authorship

1. Women were the first author on 34% of the articles. This is a little higher than the WMC got with their A-section analysis, which is not surprising given the distribution of writers across sections.

2. Women wrote the majority of stories in five out of 21 major sections, from Fashion (52% women), to Dining, Home, Travel, and Health (76% women). Those five sections account for 11% of the total.

3. Men wrote the majority of stories in the seven largest sections. Two sections were more than three-fourths male (Sports, 89%; and Opinion, 76%). U.S., World, and Business were between 66% and 73% male.

Here is the breakdown by section (click to enlarge):

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Gender words

Since we have all this text, we can go a little beyond the section headers served up by the NYTimes‘ API. What are men and women writing about? Using the words in the headlines, I compiled a list of those headline words with the biggest gender difference in rates of appearance.

For example, “Children” occurred 36 times in women’s headlines, and 24 times in men’s headlines. Since men used more than twice as many headline words as women, this produced a very big gender spread in favor of women for the word “Children.”  On the other hand, women’s headlines had 10 instances of “Iran,” versus 85 for men. Repeating this comparison zillions of times, I generated these lists:

NYTimes headline words used disproportionately in stories by

WOMEN MEN
Scene US
Israel Deal
London Business
Hotel Iran
Her Game
Beauty Knicks
Children Court
Home NFL
Women Billion
Holiday Nets
Food Music
Sales Case
Wedding Test
Museum His
Cover Games
Quiz Bitcoin
Work Jets
Christie Chief
German Firm
Menu Nuclear
Commercial Talks
Fall Egypt
Shoe Bowl
Israeli Broadway
Family Oil
Restaurant Shows
Variety Super
Cancer Football
Artists Hits
Shopping UN
Breakfast Face
Loans Russia
Google Ukraine
Living Yankees
Party Milan
Vows Mets
Clothes Kerry
Life Gas
Child Investors
Credit Plans
Health Calls
Chinese Fans
India Model
France Fed
Park Protesters
Doctors Team
Hunting Texas
Christmas Play

Here is the same table arranged as a word cloud, with pink for women and blue for men (sue me), and the more disproportionate words larger (click to enlarge):

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What does it mean?

It’s just one newspaper but it matters a lot. According to Alexa, NYTimes.com is the 34th most popular website in the U.S., and the 119th most popular in the world — and the most popular website of a printed newspaper in the U.S. In the JSTOR database of academic scholarship, “New York Times” appeared almost four-times more frequently than the next most-commonly mentioned newspaper, the Washington Post.

Research shows that when women are charge, they tend to produce better outcomes for women below them in the organizational hierarchy. Jill Abramson, the NYTimes‘ executive editor, is aware of this issue, and proudly told the Women’s Media Center that she had reached the “significant milestone” of having a half-female news masthead (which is significant). So why are women underrepresented in such prominent sections?  I’m really wondering. The NYTimes doesn’t even do as well as the national average: 41% of the 55,000 “News Analysts, Reporters and Correspondents” working full-time, year-round in 2012 were women.

Organizational research finds that large companies are less likely to discriminate against women, and we suspect three main reasons: greater visibility to the public, which may complain about bias; greater visibility to the government, which may enforce anti-discrimination laws; and greater use of formal personnel procedures, which limits managerial discretion and is supposed to weaken old-boy networks. Among writers, however, an informal, back-channel norm still apparently prevails — at least according to a recent essay by Ann Friedman. Maybe NYTimes‘ big-company, formalized practices apply more to departments other than those that select and hire writers.

A more in-depth discussion of these findings, with details on Cohen and Caren’s research methods, can be found at Family Inequality. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Sunday Fun: Stupid/Sexist Headlines Under Attack

Folks at The Vagenda had the idea of asking readers to rewrite stupid/sexist headlines. Like this:

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The results were fantastic. Here’s a sampling.

From @bexatrex:

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From @ledavies: 1.jpg

From @RubyJLL:1b

From @kimmibobs: 2

From @ce_corp: 2Via Buzzfeed.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.