July 20-22, 2008

2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach

Hyatt Regency, San Francisco Airport

Assessing weight norms, misperceptions, and Body Mass Index: Comparing the Importance of school context
and composition versus individual perception

Jessica Perkins, M.S. candidate, Dept of Population and Internatinoal Health

Harvard School of Public Health

H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology

David W. Craig, Ph.D., Dept. of Chemistry

Hobart & William Smith Colleges


Over 40,000 secondary students from more than 50 schools in nine regionally diverse states have been surveyed using an online instrument measuring actual and perceived norms between 2004-2008. Measures of perceived weight of both genders in one’s own grade, self-assessed weight, and body mass risk are examined. There is a wide discrepancy between actual school norms and students’ perceptions of weight norms among males and females in all school contexts. Students who are at risk for overweight conditions and obesity (as well as underweight and very underweight conditions) have the largest misperceptions of the actual norm. Examining variation in weight perceptions by school composition and context is also addressed.