Wage Penalty for Being Fat

Kim (basement variety) emailed me this USA Today article.

The paychecks of obese workers are, on average, about 2.5% less than the paychecks of their thinner counterparts in the same professions, a new study says.

And the wage penalty is much greater for overweight women … as much as 6.2% … according to the study submitted to the journal Health Economics.

Obese workers who are paid $1.25 less an hour over a 40-year career wind up with $100,000 less before taxes, says co-author William Ford, an economics professor at Middle Tennessee State University and a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

“It’s very clear that significantly overweight people are paying a huge price,” he says.

Obese workers overall suffered a wage penalty in the range of 1.4% to 4.5%. The penalty for obese women ranged from 2.3% to 6.2% vs. a range of 0.7% to 2.6% for men.

Obese men face discrimination, but it typically doesn’t kick in until they are very obese, says Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination. Women encounter weight discrimination for being just 30 pounds overweight, she says.

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24 Responses to Wage Penalty for Being Fat

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  2. 2
    Tish says:

    And the question I always want to ask is why, when we know there is weight based discrimination, is the discriminated group asked to change themselves to end the discrimination?

  3. 3
    emjaybee says:

    Does this study take into account that poverty tends to be one cause of obesity? The article mentioned other factors, but other than health needs, not what they were. And workers who start out poorer tend to have less education and make less in their lifetimes.

    Not that there isn’t discrimination–I know that when considering someone for promotion, an obese person is less likely to be thought of as competent, regardless of performance (especially women). I have seen that at several jobs. In office politics, a fat woman is very likely to be ostracized, left out of office gossip, and not in the loop. And some fat men, as well.

    That BMI index figure is crap though–men and women don’t have the same criteria for obesity.

  4. 4
    Terry says:

    I think the numbers would be even greater if the ways that fat women are directed out of careers for which they are deemed inappropriate were taken into account. As a heavy teenager, the local employment office sent me off to interview for dishwasher jobs even though there were better-paying retail or office work available in their listings. The pretty little cheerleader behind me in line didn’t have the same problem.

  5. 5
    Mikko says:

    (Sorry, this is not specifically about fat discriminization, but more like a rant comparing Finnish/English discussions of wage discrimination)

    In my opinion, Discrimination in wages occurs if and only if,

    1) Two persons work in The Same Company (because different companies pay differently)
    and 2) The two persons Contribute The Same to the company, ie. have similar working hours, similar education (or skills, in general), etc.
    and 3) The two persons still get paid differently

    At least in Finland, wage gap discussions most often circulate around this kind of “same pay for the same job” definition.

    This definition rules out possible preferences between groups at large (e.g. we can’t assume every company has 50% of that group and 50% of this group, etc.). This definition also holds if the two workers are of the same “group” (it’s very hard to tell which attributes are the one that contribute to the discrimination; it could be as simple as wearing odd socks.)

    It’s quite hard to take into account all these facts in a statistical study (not impossible; it has been done with careful examination, but it might be very difficult in a large country like USA). Therefore, imho, it would be better to randomly “bust” employers that do wage discrimination. In Finland, an employee can actually complain to the government officials if he/she finds out that he’s/she’s discriminated in wage against someone else.

  6. 6
    Mikko says:

    Sorry for the boring rant, let me try to summarize: the fact that fat and normal weight people get different average wages IS a sign of something being wrong, but it’s NOT necessarily a sign of wage discrimination (i.e. a single employer paying less to a fat employee than to a normal weight employee).

    Possible (i.e. more appealing to my intuition) reasons for the wage gap could be: favoring normal weight people over fat people at employment stage (thus forcing fat people to get less popular jobs), low self-esteem of fat people (or high self-esteem of normal weight people – it’s all relative, anyway.)

  7. 7
    Jeff says:

    Mikko: that definition leaves out a form of wage discrimination in which fat people *don’t* get the same jobs at the same companies, because (as Terry described) they are not considered for higher-paying jobs, especially those that require public interaction. The higher-paying job may require more skills or longer hours, but if one of those “skills” is looking attractive (outside of a very few jobs where an attractive appearance is legitimately a BFOQ, like modeling) then there’s still discrimination going on.

    In short, “same pay for the same job” discrimination can only be analyzed if various groupings of people are getting the same jobs. If not, what you tend to get is wage discrimination not on a personal level, but on a profession-wide level (as the illegitimate job requirement skews the levels of supply and demand for people’s labor).

    Now, I suppose you could say that’s hiring discrimination and not wage discrimination, but in my opinion that would be ducking the issue in favor of a debate over terminology.

    (Also, just like to point out that using “normal” as the opposite of “fat” is problematic to me, especially since the median build – what I’d consider “normal” – is judged by many to be “fat,” especially for women.)

  8. 8
    Elena says:

    Same job same pay wage comparisions are valid ways of discovering the most egregious and blatant wage discrimination, but industry or economy wide comparisions between groups ( especially in s a huge and diverse economy like the US) can be very telling.

    Another theory: obesity is related to many health problems, which may contribute to wage losses.

  9. 9
    Jeff says:

    Elena: that was my first thought too (though I hate to bring up the fat = unhealthy specter), but the USA Today article says they factored in health problems.

  10. 10
    pseu (deja pseu) says:

    Another theory: obesity is related to many health problems, which may contribute to wage losses.

    So is smoking, but I haven’t seen any studies showing that smokers’ wages are lower statistically.

  11. 11
    Mikko says:

    >>that definition leaves out a form of wage discrimination in which
    >>fat people *don’t* get the same jobs at the same companies, because
    >>(as Terry described) they are not considered for higher-paying jobs,
    >>especially those that require public interaction.

    Ah sorry, my fault. I didn’t think of this case. Sorry to all previous posters too for skimming through their posts too quickly. I was going to blurb out this is imho hiring discrimination instead of wage discrimination, but as you already said, that would be just debating over the terminology (although the purist inside me still prefers mere “discrimination” over “something-not-quite-accurate discrimination”).

  12. 12
    La Lubu says:

    Discrimination at the hiring stage is definitely a factor. When women are interviewed for the electrical apprenticeship in my jurisdiction (the committee is half union, half contractor), physical appearance and weight are prine factors for females, but not for males. If a guy looks like he bathes and brushes his teeth regularly, his appearance is considered good enough. We women have to walk a fine line between being “too feminine” and “not feminine enough”. And we better be thin. Two of the women chosen were what you could call chubby, but there have been no bona-fide obese women ever chosen as apprentices. Anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the male apprentices could qualify as obese.

  13. 13
    AmyZawn says:

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Reports of deaths from obesity have been highly exaggerated.” Anybody who’s interested should check out Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth for information on how certain, shall we say, business interests have hyped the obesity “epidemic” for their own monetary ends.

    However, all of this is moot, since this study factored in “health problems.”

    I agree with Tish. It’s absolutely disgusting how evidence of discrimination against fat people is used to oppress fat people–i.e. “Well, fat people get paid less, so they should lose weight. Then they won’t be discriminated against any more.” Grrrr.

  14. 14
    Brian says:

    I think its wrong to say that poverty causes fatness. Wealth may cause thinness in some cases, but that doesn’t mean the reverse is so. And I’d suspect that this kind of discrimination can encourage poverty among fat people.

    I seem to recall a study a while ago which showed that fat high school students were considerably less likely to receive emotional and financial support for persuing a college education and this was true across all income brackets. Anyone else recall that? Might be another factor not considered here which could mean the problem is even worse than analyzied.

  15. 15
    r@d@r says:

    i’ve seen this kind of prejudice where i work, not in the trenches but in middle and upper management. i wish i had anything other than anecdotal data to back it up. as to whether my own weight problems interfere with my advancement, i can’t be certain, as i’m in a dead-end job anyway. also, above-average weight is tolerated more socially among professional men than it is among women, being that we are in a patriarchy and all…[okay, i said the P word, godwin here i come]. i think that if i were driven enough to succeed as middle or upper management, maybe i’d be driven to the extreme behaviors required to make my body look like one of “them”. however, i’m afraid i simply don’t have the inclinantion. i’m switching careers anyway, so it may all be moot for me. i do know that all of the people i trust the most and find the most professionally competent, and yet are professionally invisible in terms of recognition by their superiors – strangely, happen to be big folks like me. funny how that works out.

  16. 16
    Elena says:

    A couple of years ago our local paper had an artcle in teh living section about “unhealthy” skinny role models like Laura Flannagan ( is that her name? the anorexic one from the Practice?) and “healthy” Katheryn Manaheim. I thought, are these my choices? A woman who is anorexic and a woman who is overweight? Is this like another version of the Madonna/whore complex?

    I wasn’t aware that there was serious controversy about weight being a health issue, but I am aware that there is controversy about what constitutes obsesity, that by some standards, President Bush is obese.

    I’m ambivalent about this issue, because while I don’t condone discrimination against an overweight person, I also never want to be overweight myself and I can’t see this as being in the same category as skin color, gender or disability.

  17. 17
    Jeff Hodapp says:

    When I was young, I was involved in an accident where my front teeth were damaged. I couldn’t afford crowns until I had a decent job. I never got a decent job so I took a job delivering pizza. A management position opened up and I was considered for it. I overheard the conversation that ensued: ” We can’t promote Jeff, his teeth are too bad.” I moved on and got my crowns but I have fought increasing weight my entire life. I was hired at a tool and die company a few years later and the other employees said that the company fire obese people and I had better lose the weight. I was laid off and re-hired 3 times but I was always treated very badly. Even though I am highly educated I was teased about my looks, my intelligence and even my sexuality. Eventually, they won, it just wasn’t worthwhile and my depression deepened and my memory failed.

    You can fight discrimination for many years but what do you win, more dicrimination. Still fighting the weight and discrimination. Please, don’t tell me it doesn’t exist. I’ve seen and experienced it in many forms. Just sick to death because it will never end and it’s a terrible existence.

  18. 18
    Bob says:

    I believe that fatpeople usually cannot perform at the level of others in the workplace. In my experience, if a person cannot control their weight, then the usually dont really have a firm grip on the job that im paying them for. They seem to be lazier, take more breaks, and they are more of a health risk, costing me more for insurance. So why should fat people be paid more?

  19. 19
    BStu says:

    Probably because what you are experiencing is personal prejudice. You presume fat people cannot “control” their weight while there is little proof that weight can be controlled at all. As such, this leads you to be hyper critical of fat people in a way you would not be of thin people. Your own bigotry is a very poor offering of proof.

  20. 20
    piny says:

    Well, because none of what you’ve just said is true.

    Even you admit that you don’t have any hard evidence, just prejudice–it “seems” that your fat employees are less capable. You’re speculating about a connection between weight and performance. You don’t actually have the slightest idea whether or not it’s true. From what you’re saying, you actively avoid hiring them, so you’ve made it impossible to ever learn the truth.

    Fat people are discriminated against even when experimenters control for performance and qualification. It has nothing to do with how lazy or uncontrolled they are.

    Also, if your overweight employees are in fact less motivated, ya think that could have anything to do with your utter lack of respect for them?

  21. 21
    Jean says:

    Both I and my roomate are big. She recieved an award this spring that only 20 people in her large company recieved because of her excellent work. But, she’s applied for a trainer position, then trained the man who eventually got the job, (IOW he wouldn’t be able to train without knowledge he got from her) then applied for a supervisory postion, with the same man as a competitor last year. Now, he’s *become* her boss, and even though she’s a “go along to get along” type it’s been enough to make her go over his head. Of course she was blown off.

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