Pitt study shows linkage between teen girls' weight and sexual behavior

October 29, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 29 - A University of Pittsburgh study sheds new light on the relationship between race, body weight and sexual behavior among adolescent girls. The results suggest that a girl's ethnicity and her actual weight or perception of her weight may play a role in her participation in risky sexual behaviors. The study results are published in the November issue of Pediatrics, now available online.

The study, conducted by Aletha Akers, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and colleagues, further links girls at weight extremes with an increased risk for engaging in sexual risk-taking behaviors.

"This study will contribute to sexual health education prevention efforts, which can be tailored to address how cultural norms regarding body size may influence adolescent sexual decision making. Knowing how a girl perceives her weight may be just as important as knowing her actual weight," noted Dr. Akers.

Of the nearly 7,200 high school girls asked about their sexual activity and risky sexual behavior as part of the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, half reported ever having sex. Those girls who were both sexually active and overweight, or who thought they were overweight, were less likely to use condoms than normal-weight sexually active girls. Underweight girls also were less likely to use condoms.

The findings also suggested variability in the girls' sexual activity and sexual risk-taking behavior based on their ethnicity and actual or perceived weight.
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Dr. Akers also is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and an investigator in the Magee-Womens Research institute.

Other authors contributing to this study include Cheryl Lynch, M.D., M.P.H., Center for Health Disparities Research, Medical University of South Carolina; Melanie Gold, M.D., Division of Student Affairs; Willa Doswell, Ph.D., Department of Health Promotion & Management, School of Nursing; and James Bost, M.D., Division of General Internal Medicine, all of the University of Pittsburgh; Judy Chang, M.D., M.P.H., and Harold Wiesenfeld, M.D., both of the Departments of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and Medicine, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC; and Wentao Feng, Ph.D., formerly a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Funding to support Dr. Akers and team came from a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award.

The University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences include the schools of Medicine, Nursing, Dental Medicine, Pharmacy, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Graduate School of Public Health. The schools serve as the academic partner to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Together, their combined mission is to train tomorrow's health care specialists and biomedical scientists, engage in groundbreaking research that will advance understanding of the causes and treatments of disease and participate in the delivery of outstanding patient care. Since 1997, Pitt and its affiliated university faculty have ranked among the top 10 educational institutions in grant support from the National Institutes of Health.

For additional information about the Schools of the Health Sciences, please visit www.health.pitt.edu.

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

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