Skinny Women, Fat Paychecks?

Why research on who earns more isn't helping anyone

Every month, it seems we get a new round of headlines telling us that the thinner you are, the more money you'll earn. This week, both Time and Forbes are reporting on a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (PDF) where researchers reported that women who are "very thin" earn nearly $22,000 more than their "average weight counterparts." And this is after just last month, I reported on a new study published in the journal Elsevier's Economics and Human Biology shows that overweight women earn less than slimmer women.

As I said last month, we do need data like this to prove that size discrimination exists -- because identifying a problem is the first step towards fixing it. But now I'm starting to wonder if we need this much data.

Because really, who do these studies help? Does it validate thin women to know that their paychecks depend more on their jeans size than their talents? Hardly. I think most highly-paid thin women would like to think they've earned that paycheck through their hard work and dedication. It's sexist and objectifying to claim otherwise. (When was the last time anybody said Bill Gates earned his fortune because of his six-pack abs?) 

Does it motivate heavier women to lose weight in order to earn more? Absolutely not, although the media seems to think otherwise -- "I don’t think I’ll ever ask a fast-food restaurant to “super-size me” again!" concludes Lisa Quast in her Forbes blog post. In reality, a Rudd Center research study of overweight and obese adults, 79 percent reported that they had coped with weight bias by eating more and 75 percent reported that they refused to keep dieting in response to bias. In addition, adults who experienced weight bias were more likely to engage in binge eating. So constantly reminding fat people that they might earn less (or otherwise have a harder life) because of their size? Not constructive. Or particularly enlightening. Most overweight people already know that our society judges them for their appearance.

Quast suggests that these studies are useful because they "help employers and hiring managers become aware of potential ingrained biases of how much people’s weight affects employment decisions." And if I thought the research was only being used that way,  I'd be all for it. Instead, it's starting to feel like another way the "war on obesity" has become a "war on obese people." When you hear "overweight women earn less" repeated over and over, it becomes too easy for the nuances of that message to get lost. Like a big culture-wide game of Telephone, what we're suddenly hearing and thinking is "overweight women deserve less" and finally, "overweight women are less." Less successful. Less financially stable. Less able to attract a mate.

And this is just plain wrong.

Not just because it's factually incorrect -- there are there plenty of overweight women who are highly successful, financially stable, attractive and awesome in every way. (Um, Oprah, Melissa McCarthy, US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, Ragen Chastein of Dances With Fat, and so many more I can name, famous and not -- oh yeah, myself included!) But also because it's wrong to determine a person's potential based on any one characteristic about them.

As long as these studies are being used for good -- exposing size discrimination where it happens so we can stop it in its tracks -- I'm on board. But when the media starts turning it into yet another reason to go on a diet? It's time to find a new story. 





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