Weight Stereotyping: How People Judge You Based on Your Body
Posted by Katie Ostoich on May 14, 2012 at 4:18 PM
Nobody said it was fair, but it’s happening all day everyday. Weight stereotyping is harsh…and everywhere. Discrimination against heavier people is well documented—and, sadly, rising: a full 66 percent in the past decade, according to a Yale University study. But could this kind of bias extend to women of all sizes? And are people looking at your body and making assumptions about your life—and your personality?
To find out, Glamour commissioned a survey of women ages 18 to 40, designed with guidance from Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., director of research and weight stigma initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. They asked respondents to imagine a woman whom they had never met and knew nothing about except that she was “overweight” or “thin”; they then had to choose from pairs of words, like ambitious or lazy, to describe her. They could select neither, but fewer than half did—a telling statistic, according to Puhl. “Weight,” she says, “is one of the last acceptable prejudices.”
And not only is this bias acceptable, the results of their survey show—it’s out of control. The results:
Heavy women are pegged as…“lazy” 11 times as often as thin women; “sloppy” nine times; “undisciplined” seven times; “slow” six times as often.
While thin women are seen as…“conceited” or “superficial” about eight times as often as heavy women; “vain” or “self-centered” four times as often; and “bitchy,” “mean,” or “controlling” more than twice as often.
Even the “good” labels are unfair. An overweight woman may be five times as likely to be perceived as “giving” as a skinny one. “But it just fits into the stereotype that thin women are not that way,” explains Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D. “It’s still putting women in a box based on their body size.”
So it seems no women are free from body judgement. And almost all of us are guilty of participating. And these days the body-acceptance movement has inadvertently added another negative spin. Glamour writes, “Think about it: If ‘real women have curves,’ as one popular mantra asserts, then a woman without curves is by extension unreal, not to be trusted. “Not only is a skinny woman assumed to be tight with her calories and, therefore, tight with her emotions,” says Amy Farrell, Ph.D., a professor of women’s and gender studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and author of Fat Shame, ‘she’s also pushed away as someone who is not sharing in the same struggles as the rest of us. People look at her and say, “You’re not friend material; you’re alien.”’”
Historically, culture has been kinder to curvy women. For much of the past 700 years at least, a “robust” female figure meant health, wealth, and sensuality. But starting about 100 years ago, when food became more plentiful in this country and Americans began chasing thinness as a sign of wealth, extra weight became linked with inferiority. So while plus-size women may still be considered warm (hence their frequent casting as cheerful, supportive rom-com sidekicks), they are also seen as ineffective, lazy, ill-kempt, and unprofessional.
How do we stop all this weight stereotyping? First, challenge the way people judge you. If someone presumes to know your personality based on the way you look, have a ready comeback. And question the way you judge others. If you see a thin woman and your mind leaps to something negative, question what’s really going on with you in that moment. Chances are, you’re channeling an inner self-esteem issue.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, hit pause the next time you find yourself sizing someone up. Every time you stop weight-judging in its tracks, you help the world see women for who we really are.
Are you guilty of body judging? Or have you been unfairly judged? Share your stories in the comments!