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Size Matters: Discrimination Weighs More Heavily on Women

You already know that appearances are important at work—a fresh haircut, sharp suit, and good hygiene all signal control, excellence, and transmit good feelings you may hold about yourself to others. Weight is part of the appearance package—but simply being healthy or average may not earn you the wage favor that being very thin does, if you're a woman.

Anti-Obesity Mentality

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Image Source | Getty Images

As the 2010 study "When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women,"(Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable) notes, stereotypes of the overweight abound: that they are "undisciplined, dishonest, sloppy… socially unattractive… less likely to do productive work…"

Those stereotypes were found to carry over into salaries when a BLS study in 2007 discovered significant "wage penalties" for overweight and obese white women (the only race/gender group consistently affected).

But Judge and Cable took it a step further; examining body mass indexes that ranged from very thin to obese, they discovered steep salary rewards for women of a very low weight.

Rewards vs. Penalties

Presumably, the prejudice against the overweight—coupled with the increasing rarity of "thinness"—has resulted in a higher valuation of the ideal body-type (very thin). And we mean literally: in the Judge and Cable study comparing females' salaries and their respective weights, the greatest salary benefits for women occurred at two standard deviations below the average weight (the "very thin" category)—rewarded with an average of $3,980.88 increase in salary.

But that "very thin" ideal only seems to apply to women. For males, the most-prized body type was "chunky and muscular," and men could gain much more weight—right up to the obesity range—before losing any money. On the other hand, there was a pronounced intolerance for a "skinny" appearance in men—costing those in the very thin range about $4,056.67.

A Matter of Perception

The acceptable weight range for men is ostensibly more forgiving. Barring a very thin body type (which the Judge and Cable study notes is associated with being "nervous, sneaky, afraid, sad, weak, and sick"), men are seen positively at a much wider range of weights than women. And as they gain weight, they are likely considered more solid, happy, and normal (with associations like "best friend, has lots of friends, polite, happy, helps others, brave, healthy, smart, and neat").

Women, on the other hand, are seen as extremely desirable at very low weights; the study suggests that slim women are associated with "Protestant values" such as "self-discipline, thrift, and hard work"—all prized ideals in the workplace.

There may also be a skewed idea of what women should look like altogether, due to the ubiquity of media images, which almost exclusively feature women who are much thinner than their off-screen counterparts.

As Judge and Cable observe, "On the basis of the media’s standards, people generally perceive average female weight as overweight, and they perceive very thin women as average in weight."

Why Are We Harder On Women?

Since extreme thinness is so desirable, a woman visibly beginning to deviate from it will face the harshest backlash. "For American women… the per pound penalty at 25 lbs below the group mean is 12% harsher than at 25 lbs above the group mean," the Judge and Cable study notes.

Thus, while any weight gain is penalized "very thin women receive the most severe punishment for their first few pounds of weight gain," reports the study. This is an unfortunate effect, since the study notes that weight has little relationship with performance at most jobs. Least of all between the "very thin" and "average" weight ranges.

It's likely that the relationship with weight and pay has more to do with perceived performance—and what that means for men vs. women—than it does with weight alone, or competence alone. And that perception may be intrinsically tied with the age old stereotype that men are more suited to the workplace than women.

Just as a top performing man might be seen as off his game if he comes to work in sweats instead of a suit, a usually impossibly trim female executive may be viewed poorly for gaining a few pounds; it disrupts the illusion of the superhuman control and will power that is so closely tied to competence in working women.

While a hardworking man is accepted in most forms, from slim to potbellied, a woman must still show that she is extraordinary to win the same opportunities. She does that by working hard, or course, but also by adhering to the highest ranks of cultural value--up to and including weight class.

Cathy Vandewater is an associate producer for Vault.com. Originally from Utica, NY, she holds a BA in writing from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she currently resides.

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