Research shows the dangers of not being attractive or athletic in middle school

Newswise – Despite the many changes in school culture since the 1960s, a new study shows that some things never change: Life is harder for middle school students who aren't attractive and for those who aren't athletic.

As children return to school, the first longitudinal study of its kind will be conducted Florida Atlantic University helps explain why adolescents who lack traits valued by their peers are at risk for adjustment difficulties.

Results published in the Magazine for youth and youth, show that adolescents with low attractiveness and low athletic ability became progressively unpopular over the course of a school year, leading to increases in their loneliness and alcohol abuse. Put simply, the peer group penalizes those who do not possess valued traits such as good looks or good athletic ability.

The study disproved stereotypes about gender differences on traits important for peer success. For decades it was assumed that not being athletic was a particular problem for boys and that not being attractive was a particular problem for girls.

The results show a change in the social culture of young people, such that the social disadvantages associated with a lack of attractiveness or lack of athletic ability are no longer gender-specific. Boys and girls did not differ in the extent to which unpopularity and adjustment problems were related to low attractiveness and low athleticism. As their unpopularity increases, so do their problems.

“Children who lack qualities valued by their peers suffer from a variety of adjustment difficulties, many of which stem from their declining status in the group,” he said Brett LaursenPh.D., senior author and professor of psychology at FAU Charles E Schmidt College of Science. “Kids who aren't attractive and kids who aren't athletic are becoming increasingly unpopular. Increasing marginalization, in turn, leads to loneliness and alcohol abuse. Growing unpopularity is key to understanding why unattractive and unsportsmanlike people develop behavior problems. Of those who did drink to the point of intoxication during the school year, nearly two-thirds were disliked above average.”

The dangers associated with stigmatized characteristics were comparable for boys and girls.

“Children who are not attractive and children who are not athletic tend to become less popular over time, suggesting that they must endure the outrage of powerlessness in order to remain attached to their peer group, a position that ultimately affects individual well-being,” he told Mary Page James, first author and Ph.D. student at FAU Department of Psychology. “Being unattractive harms boys' popularity as much as it does girls, and unsportsmanlike is a major factor in girls' unpopularity, just as it is for boys.” Despite widespread public messages about body acceptance, the social world of youth is often still quite unforgiving.”

The study involved 580 middle school students aged 10 to 13 years. Participants were asked to identify classmates who best fit the following descriptions: athletic (“good at sports”), attractive (“really good looking”), and unpopular (“unpopular”). They also described how often in the past month they felt lonely and how often they drank alcohol to the point of intoxication.

Replication is a strength of the study. The same pattern of associations was found in a heterogeneous sample of youth from a large metropolitan area in Florida and in a homogeneous sample of youth from a small community in Lithuania.

Laursen, James, and co-authors of the study offer several strategies to help children who lack these traits valued by their peers:

  • As a teacher, consider changing classroom norms. Given their pervasiveness in popular culture, it may be difficult to discount physical appearance or athletic ability, but it may be possible to encourage tolerance for differences or to emphasize the merits of other traits. A positive classroom climate can also protect at-risk youth from loneliness.
  • Finally, parents should give their children opportunities to form and maintain close friendships with well-adjusted peers, because friends can alleviate loneliness.

Study co-authors are Sharon Faur, Ph.D. Student at the Department of Psychology at FAU; and Goda Kaniušonytė, Ph.D., a researcher; and Rita Žukauskienė, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, both at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, Lithuania.

This project was supported by grants from the United States National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD096457) and the European Social Fund (Project No. 09.3.3-LMT-K-712-17-0009) under a grant agreement with the Research Council of Lithuania.

– FAU –

About Florida Atlantic University: Founded in 1961, Florida Atlantic University officially opened in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the university serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at six campuses along the southeast Florida coast. In recent years, the university has doubled its research spending and surpassed its peers in academic success rates. Through the coexistence of access and excellence, FAU embodies an innovative model in which traditional performance gaps disappear. FAU is a Hispanic-oriented institution, ranked among the top public universities by US News & World Report and a research-active institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information visit

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