Samhita on Feministing recently wrote about a study which found that fat women, but not fat men, are discriminated against:
The researcher found that body mass does not effect men in work or in marriage and divorce. Of course not, it is a woman that is judged not by her ability to do a job, but by her height to weight ratio.
This is hardly a new result; many studies of fat discrimination have found minimal, or nonexistent, evidence of discrimination against fat men, although nearly all of them find evidence of discrimination against fat women.
I’m not convinced these findings are accurate. I don’t deny, of course, that fat women are discriminated against more than fat men are; it’s obvious that women are judged more often and more harshly for carrying “extra” weight. But it’s also evident, in my day to day life, that discrimination against fat men does exist and sometimes matters. All fat people – including men – are more likely to be seen as weak-willed, disgusting, and slobby than their otherwise-similar thin counterparts. Why would employment be an exception?
Consider these quotes from hiring managers at various companies (via Big Fat Blog):
Says Scott, a vice president at a sports marketing firm. “If you’re fat – and I don’t mean you need to lose a few pounds like most of us – if you’re huge, you aren’t getting the job. Period.”
“I think fat people are weak people,” says Tom who works for a major bank. “…I don’t want real fat people around me. Whether it’s fair or not, and I know it’s not, I can’t get past that… So, I go with another candidate.”
“So many of the people I work with are fat,” says Anne who works for city government in the northeast. “…The fat people just don’t work as hard or produce as much. I’ll never hire a fat person, and I’ll never say that for attribution. Whether true or not for the overweight population as a whole, I can’t say, but it sure is my experience, and I hire based on my experience.”
None of these folks are saying “I’d hire a fat man, but never a fat women.” Big Fat Blog also quoted an online poll which found that “25% of human resource execs admitted weight had a role in their hiring decisions. Another 35% suggested it might, on a subconscious level.”
With so many hiring managers willing to admit that they discriminate against fat people (and probably more still who discriminate, but who aren’t willing to fess up to it), it seems strange that study after study finds no discrimination against fat men.
So why can’t the studies see discrimination against fat men? Our society’s sexist double-standard, which judges women much more harshly than men for being just a little bit fat, also has the effect of masking discrimination against fat men in these studies.
The study Samhita linked to used BMI as their measurement of who is fat; a BMI of 25 or above makes a person “overweight.” But, as has often been noted, even some ultra-fit but bulky men – Brad Pitt is the usual example – have BMIs that qualify them as being “overweight” or even “obese,” by government standards. But not even the most bigoted anti-fat employer is going to practice anti-fat discrimination against someone who looks like Brad Pitt.
Ultra-fit actors aside, it’s simply more socially acceptable for men to be a little chubby than women. A man with a small “spare tire” – Jay Leno, say – is considered “normal” and not discriminated against; a woman who is objectively carrying around the same amount of “extra” weight around her hips or tummy is considered fat, and will be discriminated against.
Of course, this double-standard benefits men – men are given far more latitude to be “fat” without experiencing anti-fat discrimination. But for those men who do qualify as “fat,” even by the more relaxed standards men are held to, anti-fat discrimination is real. It would be nice if studies of discrimination reflected this reality.
Studies show that “overweight” women – even those who are only slightly “overweight” – are discriminated against for their weight. On the other hand, men who are (by the government’s BMI standards) slightly “overweight” probably don’t experience anti-fat discrimination at all. So when all men with BMIs of 25 or above are averaged together – the Brad Pitts and the Jay Lenos treated as if they’re in the same category as men who look like John Goodman – the discrimination experienced by the genuinely fat men is averaged out with the more numerous experiences of “overweight” men who aren’t considered fat at all. The result is the probably incorrect finding that fat men experience no discrimination at all.
To compound the problem, many studies “excluded extreme values” from their samples. For example, the study Feministing discussed simply dropped all people who weigh over 400 pounds – most of whom were probably men – from consideration. But that seems dubious; is there any reason to suppose that a man (or woman) who weighs 405 pounds is less likely to experience fat discrimination?
My guess is that a study of men who weigh 300 pounds or more – or that used a much higher BMI cutoff (say 35 or above) – would find quite a lot of anti-fat discrimination against men that current studies are ignoring.